Tomatillo plants are free spirits and they make delicious salsa verde!
Unlike most other agricultural plants, tomatillo plants refuse to be hybridized. This is pretty surprising, since recent research has shown that tomatillos have been around for 52 million years! They have retained their wild nature while still providing us with an easy to grow edible plant. These members of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), are cousin to tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant, and tobacco. As such, you should not eat any part of the plant other than the fruit.
Tomatillo fruits are greenish and sticky. They come wrapped in their own natural paper husks. The plants, being wild by nature, can take on a variety of shapes and sizes, but they tend to be low-growing, sprawling plants. If you want something really unique, you can even find purple tomatillos! Tomatillos are one type of ground cherry, but there are many others.
How to grow tomatillos
Native to Mexico, tomatillos (Physalis philadelphica), also known as Mexican husk tomatoes, prefer bright, sunny locations and they are somewhat drought tolerant. They grow best in nutrient rich soil with a neutral pH. Adding compost to the bed before planting will help give your tomatillos a head start. The plants grow quickly, but they take a long time to produce fruit (60 to 80 days). Tomatillos are not self-fertilizing, so you will need multiple plants to get a crop. Seeds should be planted 1/8 to 1/4 inch deep. Tomatillos can be grown in large containers (at least 5 gallons) but they need more sunlight than a window garden can provide. Like peppers, tomatillo seeds need warm temperatures to germinate.
If you buy tomatillo seedlings, plant two-thirds of the stem below ground, as you would for tomatoes. All those nodes will covert to root tissue, helping your new plants get a better start and produce a bigger harvest. Place mature plants three feet apart and provide support with trellising or tomato cages. Like tomatoes, you will want to keep the soil around your tomatillos moist, but not soggy. Mulching can reduce evaporation and competition from weeds. It also stabilizes soil temperatures.
Tomatillo pests and diseases
Being relatively wild, tomatillos are pretty rugged. Fungal diseases, such as powdery mildew, can occur if plants are left to sprawl on the ground, which is why providing support is a good idea. Flea beetles may also chew holes in the fruit.
Harvesting and storing tomatillos
Tomatillos stay greenish, so color will not tell you when it is time to harvest your tomatillo crop. Instead, watch to see when the fruit has filled its husk to bursting. If the fruit is left to ripen further, it will turn yellow or purple, but it won’t taste as good. Once your tomatillos are picked, you can store them in a paper bag in the refrigerator for 2 or 3 weeks, or you can make your own salsa verde and do some canning!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!