Ever wonder what makes your salsa verde green? Surprise! It’s not green tomatoes but instead a delightful fruit called the tomatillo. You can purchase tomatillos at the grocery store (typically located near the peppers), but if you have the space I suggest growing your own. With few pest and disease problems tomatillos are easy to grow organically, prolific (which means tons of yummy salsa!), and fascinating to watch grow inside husks that resemble tiny green lanterns.
What is a tomatillo?
Perhaps you have never heard of tomatillos before. I know I hadn’t until I moved to Central California and found them a staple of just about every farmer’s market. The word tomatillo is Spanish for “little tomato” and looks like a small green tomato that grows inside a husk. But it isn’t. Tomatillos are fruit (technically a type of berry), originally cultivated by the Aztecs. Today, you can grow varieties from the same two species the Aztecs grew. Physalis ixocarpa is commonly sold in markets and has large (up to 2 ½-inch-diameter) tart green fruits, which ripen to pale yellow. Physalis philadelphica produces sweeter, marble-size purple fruits. This species is a common field weed grown in Mexico, but the taste is no less delicious.
With a sweet-tart flavor, similar to an apple and lemon combined, tomatillos are fantastic in many sauces and dishes. Most commonly, tomatillos are used to make salsa verde, chutney, and served with pork or chicken entrees. They can be eaten raw just like their tomato cousins, which makes them a great addition to fresh salads. You can also stew, roast, grill, or sauté them. My personal favorite is to roast them as it enhances their sweetness.
How is a tomatillo different from a green tomato?
A green tomato is simply an unripe tomato, whereas a tomatillo is a completely different plant. The tomatillo is in the nightshade family, just like the tomato, eggplant, and potato, but the tomatillo is in a different genus (in other words, tomatoes and tomatillos are only distantly related). Do not try to substitute green tomatoes for tomatillos in recipes, as they will not have the right texture or the depth of flavor that tomatillos have.
Why I Love to Grow Tomatillos
First: I love to grow tomatillos because they are incredibly easy to grow. You put the plant in the ground, make sure it gets some sunlight and water, and boom you have tomatillos. I like them because they aren’t prissy like tomatoes; you can water their leaves all you want, they will withstand a few days without water quite well (such as when you go out of town for 4 or 5 days and forget to have them watered), and they can handle pests chomping their leaves without getting stressed out.
Second: I love to grow tomatillos because they are fascinating to watch grow! The fruit starts off the size of a pea inside a husk that looks like a small green lantern.
In about a week the fruit grows to fill the entire husk and eventually bursts out of it. Pretty cool stuff!
How to Grow Epic Tomatillos
Ok, now onto the good stuff. How can you grow some seriously epic (spectacular, impressive, awesome) tomatillo plants in your garden? The following is everything I’ve learned through trial and error, research, and advice from local garden experts on growing my own. It’s worked great for me and I hope it works well for you too!
Select a growing area with full sun exposure and well-drained, moderately rich soil. The tomatillo is a lighter feeder than tomatoes, and while they are tough semi-wild plants, they do not fare well in soggy, poorly drained soil. Work a couple inches of compost into the soil before planting seeds, and fork deeply to improve drainage. Raised beds and containers work great for growing tomatillos if your garden has heavy clay soil. For tips on getting great garden soil checkout my previous post on The Why & How of Garden Soil Amendment.
Tomatillos can be started from seed or purchased as transplants from most Garden Centers. To propagate tomatillo plants by seed, start seeds indoors two months before the last expected frost (seeds will germinate in four to seven days). Seed trays aren’t large enough to grow tomatillo seedlings for two months, so either use a larger plant container when starting seeds or transplants seedlings into a large pot after the first set of true leaves forms. When bringing the young tomatillo plants outside, harden them off by getting them used to the cooler outdoor garden weather. For a few days, keep the tomatillo plants out in the sun only during daytime and bring them back indoors at night.
Note: You will need multiple tomatillo plants or you will not have any fruit to harvest. Plant at least two or three plants so they can cross-pollinate.
Tomatillos should be transplanted into the ground (or outdoor containers) around the same time you plant your tomatoes. Tomatoes should not go into the ground until the night temperature is above 50 degrees; tomatillos are a little more forgiving, but waiting until the nights start to warm up is ideal. I typically plant mine in early May (I live in zone 9 where it’s a bit warmer). If you plan to purchase your seedlings from a Garden Center, look for a shipment around the same time as tomatoes.
Much like their nightshade cousin the tomato, tomatillos sprout roots along the stems and therefore profits from being planted deeply in the garden. Sprawling plants grow 3 to 4 feet tall and at least as wide, so space the plants 3 feet apart in rows 3 to 4 feet apart. Similar to tomatoes, you can let them sprawl or give them support using garden stakes or cages. Again, tomatillos are not self-pollinating like their tomato cousins. In order for the tomatillo flowers to set fruit, you must grow at least two plants in your garden.
Planting Tip: In my experience, two to four plants are sufficient for fresh use.
Start by applying 2 to 3 inches of organic mulch (I like to use grass clippings or straw) to suppress weeds and keep the soil moist. Although moderately drought-tolerant, tomatillos do best with an inch or so of water per week. If space is limited, pinch off the growing tips to control spread.
Tomatillos do well with regular application of a fertilizer that is high in phosphorous and potassium. Before planting, amend the soil with a 10-10-10 fertilizer, using about 1/4 pound per every 50 square feet. Be sure to work the fertilizer deep in the soil. After harvesting the first fruits, apply a second feeding consisting of 5-10-10 fertilizer, using 1/2 cup for each plant. This second feeding helps tomatillos continue flowering and producing fruit. A great recipe for homemade organic fertilizer that your tomatillos will love can be found here.
Growing Tip: When frost threatens, pull up your tomatillo plants and hang them upside down in an unheated garage. The tomatillo fruits will keep for at least a couple of months.
Tomatillos are prolific. They produce a lot of fruit, and the more you pick, the more flowers the plant will set. You’ll be preparing your first batch of salsa verde about 75 to 100 days after transplanting seedlings. Harvest tomatillos when the fruit bursts out of its papery cocoon, or when the papery cocoon gets really dried out.
You can actually pick them before they are officially ripe, but they’ll just be more tart and less sweet. For green varieties, fruit that is more yellow will be sweeter (but harvest before they turn a pale yellow, as they lose their desired tanginess as they ripen); for purple varieties, fruit should be more purple than green for sweetness. With both varieties, a green fruit means a tart fruit.
They will continue to ripen once brought inside. I always keep mine in the fridge (where I have been known to leave them for weeks), but you can ripen them up on a counter as well. If you’re like me, your counter space during summer is perpetually full of ripening tomatoes so the tomatillos have to take a back seat. Harvested tomatillos in their husks can be stored at room temperature for up to a week or in the refrigerator for up to three weeks.
Harvesting Tip: Harvest all your ripe tomatillos to prevent a forest of self-sown seedlings next year. Consign overripe and rotten tomatillo fruits to your hot compost heap.
Tomatillo plants are seriously hearty and can easily withstand a few garden pests. However, it is still in your plant’s best interest to occasionally do some pest patrol. Watch out for different types of beetles that will eat your tomatillo plant’s leaves. Early in the growing season I tend to have issues with flea beetles and later in the growing season potato beetles. Flea beetles only present a problem for a short period of time and can be easily controlled by placing sticky tape around the base of your plant. You will know you have a flea beetle problem if you find bullet holes eaten in your leaves. Potato beetles typically hatch mid growing season and stick around until the first frost. A good indication you have potato beetles is if you find lace laden or fully devoured leaves. I’ve found checking my plants regularly for the beetle’s orange eggs or ugly slug like larva, is the easiest way to control the beetles. I simply pick off the eggs, larva, or mature beetles and drop them in a bucket of soapy water.
Insecticidal soap can also be a useful way to organically manage potato beetles. Just make sure no beneficial insects are in the way before you spray. Mulching heavily with straw is also a great organic way to control potato beetles because it creates a habitat for predators such as ground beetles, ladybugs, and green lacewings.
Blight, slugs, and snails may also present a problem. If you want to keep your plant slug and snail free, place copper tape around the base of the plant as a repellent. This really works! I haven’t had a single slug or snail issue since I started using it.
You can prevent many of the diseases that affect tomatillos by spacing them properly and growing them up stakes or in cages. Keeping the plants off the ground makes them easier to harvest. It also helps keep the plants dry and allows air to circulate around them. You can grow tomatillo up stakes or trellis, but I find cages (such a the tomato cage) ideal. I like to make my own cages from left over hog wire. Simply place your cage over your tomatillo shortly after translating, and guide the stems through the holes in the cage as the plant grows.
Although pruning is not necessary, I find it helpful to manage the size of my plant and improve air circulation. To do so, prune tomatillos to one or two vigorous stems by snapping off “suckers” (stems growing from where leaf stems meet the main stem) when they are 2 to 4 inches long.
I’ve never had any issues with fungus or disease on my tomatillos, and I’ve heard it’s relatively uncommon as most varieties are bred to be resistant. If you do notice your plant is looking unwell, try spraying the plant with Neem Oil which is safe for organic gardening and great for treating a wide range of fungal and disease issues.
If you find that your tomatillo plant grows empty husks, it is most likely because they are not getting properly pollinated (due to lack of bees or because you only planted one plant). If this occurs you will have to hand pollinate the plants yourself. To do so, use a cotton swab or small, soft paintbrush similar to those found in a child’s watercolor set. Use the tip to pick up pollen from the flowers on a plant, and then dab the pollen inside the flowers on another plant.
Open the husk. Push it up from to the top, taking the stem. You may have to take a knife and cut the stem off the top to remove it and the husk. Rinse the fruit, rubbing gently to remove most of the sticky film. Enjoy!
Easy Roasted Tomatillo Salsa Recipe
Tomatillos are fantastic for making salsa. They are naturally bright and acidic so you don’t need to add an external acid source like lime or vinegar. They are also high in pectin, which means your salsa will have a nice chip-coating texture (not thin or watery).
To end this post with a “kick”, here is one of my favorite salsa verde recipes. Smoky, spicy, sweet, and tangy – it’s a delicious way to use fresh tomatillos!
- 10 Medium Tomatillos (approximately 1 1/2 lbs.), husked and cut in half
- 1 Medium White Onion, peeled and cut in half
- 2 to 4 Jalapeño peppers (to taste), split in half
- 1/4 Cup Cilantro (optional)
- Salt to taste
Position oven rack to 4 inches below broiler and preheat broiler to high. Place tomatillos, onion, and chilies on a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. Broil until darkly charred and blackened on top and tomatillos are completely tender, about 10 minutes.
Transfer vegetables and their juice to a food processor. Add half of the cilantro. Blend in pulses until a rough puree is formed. A few tablespoons of water can be added for thinner consistency.
Finely chop remaining cilantro and stir into salsa. Season to taste with salt. Let cool, then serve.
The salsa will last for about a week in the fridge. Actually, that’s a lie. There’s no way it’s going to survive a whole week without being eaten. I like to eat it with everything from enchiladas to tacos and even eggs. Enjoy!