Tomatillo (Physalis ixocarpa), or Mexican husk tomato, are members of the nightshade family, grown for their small, green or purple fruits. The fruits closely resemble unripe tomatoes in their appearance with a leafy husk that wraps the outside, hence the name. Tomatillos originated in Mexico and are a staple of Mexican cuisine to this day. They are consumed raw or added to soups, sauces, salsa, and jam. It’s a perennial plant in southern climates, usually grown as an annual vegetable that grows up to 3.3 feet tall. Tomatillo thrives in warm climates and are very sensitive to frost.
Types & Varieties of Tomatillo
Tomatillo is an excellent source of fiber. It’s rich in Vitamin C, Vitamin K and niacin. Several different varieties exist, with some differences in the size and flavor of the fruit. Some types give green or yellow colored fruits while some are purple.
Common varieties of Tomatillo:
- Cisineros – It’s a very productive variety that matures in 85 days and produces large green fruits, up to 2.5 inches in diameter. They have a sweet, fruity flavor and work great in salsa and sauces.
- Pineapple – It’s a unique variety that produces loads of small, yellow fruits, about an inch in diameter. The fruits are green to begin with but turn yellow as they reach maturity, in about 75 days from planting. It’s sweet, pineapple flavor is where its name comes from.
- Amarylla – This is an heirloom variety with sweet yellow fruits that reach maturity as the husks split open. The firm, small fruits are perfect for jams, and salsa.
- Toma Verde – Maturing in 60 to 70 days, it takes little time to grow, producing abundant, large green fruits. The fruits are very sweet, and work great in sauces and salsa.
Each plant produces 1 to 2 pounds of fruit so plan around 1 to 2 plants per person, spacing them 3 to 4 feet apart in rows with a 3-foot spacing between rows.
Temperature and Timing for growing Tomatillo
Tomatillo is a warm season vegetable that’s planted outdoors once all dangers of frost have passed in spring, and the temperatures are consistently above 50°F. You may start the seeds earlier indoors, 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost and transplant the seedlings once the frost has passed and the soil is warm. The vegetable plant thrives when temperatures are between 70°F and 80°F.
Sun Exposure and Soil Requirements
Tomatillo requires a spot with full sun to thrive and produce abundant, healthy fruits. For best growth, it needs to get 8 or more hours of direct sunlight.
Well-drained, moderately fertile land is best for tomatillos, but since they’re hardy plants, they’ll also survive in low fertility.
How to Plant Tomatillo
Tomatillo gardening begins with planting the seeds indoors, 6 to 8 weeks before the last expected frost of spring. Staring the seeds indoors is especially important in regions where summers are shorter, since the plants will need at least two months to grow to maturity after being transplanted in the garden.
It’s important to know that you’ll need at least 2 tomatillo plants for pollination and fruit set. Since they are not self-fertilizing, individual plants will not be able to fertilize themselves. Plant the seeds in seedling trays filled with light potting soil and allow them to grow besides a sunny window before they’re ready to go in the garden.
Once the outdoor temperature stays consistently above 50°F, you can start hardening off the seedlings. Give plenty of time to adapt to the outdoor conditions before setting them in the prepared garden bed. Space them at least 3 to 4 feet apart since they have a bushy growth, with 18 to 24 inch spread.
Just like tomatoes, the seedlings are planted deeply since roots appear along the stems. Set some form of support, such as a trellis or a tomato cage to keep the plants off the ground. Mulch the soil with 2 to 3 inches of organic matter to keep weeds at bay and preserve soil moisture.
Offer about an inch of water each week. Since tomatillos are light feeders, they won’t need any fertilization if you planted them in organic soil amended with some compost to begin with.
Tomatillos take around 75 to 100 days to grow to maturity. Here’s how to harvest them.
- Harvesting begins when the fruits fill out the husks and the papery husks start splitting open.
- Sometimes, the husk won’t split open but will turn brown and leathery, this is also a sign that they’re ready to be picked.
- Harvest them while they’re still firm. Don’t wait until the fruit turns pale yellow since they’ll be seedier and will lose their characteristic tanginess.
- Remove the fruits by cutting the stem with sharp pruners. Avoid pulling the fruits as it may damage the plant.
If you plan on storing them, don’t remove the husk before refrigerating them. At room temperature, tomatillos will stay fresh for up to a week, while in the fridge, they can last for up to 3 weeks. Either place them loose or inside a paper bag. Don’t store them in plastic. You can also freeze whole or sliced tomatillos to save them for longer. Canning or preserving in the form of sauces or jam is another way to use your harvest through the rest of the year.
Pests and Diseases
- Aphids sometimes bother your tomatillos, sucking the sap from the plants. In small numbers, they aren’t too problematic but too many can cause stunted growth. You can hose them off with water or spray the plants with insecticidal soap.
- Cucumber beetles, with yellow and black stripes on their back, live on the underside of the leaves, eating away the leaves and weakening the plants. Use floating row covers to protect newly planted seedlings.
- Potato beetles are orange-yellow, with three black lines on the back and are a common problem with tomatillo crops. If there are only a few of them, handpicking is enough to eliminate the pests. However, on a heavily infested crop, you may use chemical pesticides – but be careful when using pesticide while tomatillo gardening.
- Anthracnose is a fungal disease that attacks the fruits as it ripens. It begins as a small, sunken spot and grows into a large, black lesion. Eventually, the fruit will rot. The disease is often the result of very hot and humid conditions
- Bacterial Leaf Spot damages the leaves and the fruits on the plant. It appears as translucent spots that grow bigger with a red center. The disease thrives in cooler climates.
Hopefully, this article will help you with your tomatillo gardening to grow the best tomatillos to feed your Mexican cravings – wish you a great gardening experience!