How to Grow Tomatillos
Nothing says summer like the bright, tangy taste of tomatillos. If you like Mexican food, you are already familiar with the flavor of these fruits, which are similar to tomatoes with a light green, papery-looking husk. Although tomatillos are seasonally available in most grocery stores, it is much more satisfying to grow and harvest them right from your garden.
The Difference Between Tomatillos and Tomatoes
Although tomatillos are similar to tomatoes in many ways, they are not the same plant at all. They both belong to the nightshade family and grow in much the same way, but they are not interchangeable in recipes. In fact, if you substituted a green tomato for a tomatillo in a traditional Mexican dish, you would not be pleased with the results!
Other than their basic appearance, though, you can easily see the difference between the two types of fruit. While tomatoes turn red as they ripen, tomatillos not only stay green but also develop a thin husk to protect the fruit inside.
Tip: The most common varieties of tomatillos are green when ripe. However, some types can ripen to a bright purple or even yellow.
Where Do Tomatillos Grow?
In USDA Zones 10-11, tomatillo plants are a perennial plant, returning from year to year to produce their bright green fruits. However, you can grow them anywhere as long as you provide a favorable growing environment for the plants.
Since they are so similar to tomatoes in many ways, if you know how to grow tomatoes you should have no problem with growing tomatillos.
How to Plant Tomatillos
Tomatillo plants are not cold-resistant, so most gardeners start their seeds indoors about 4-6 weeks before the last frost date. If you are not sure when the last frost for your area is predicted, you can easily ask your local nursery center or a more experienced gardener.
It is easy to start tomatillo seeds indoors. To begin this process, you need to do the following:
- Fill plantable peat pots with an organic potting mix.
- Plant 2-3 seeds in each pot to a depth of 1/2 inch (1.3 cm).
- Water the seeds liberally so the soil is damp but not dripping.
- Place the seeds in a sunny location and water whenever the soil feels dry.
Once the seeds have sprouted several sets of leaves, pull the smallest plants out and allow the strongest to continue growing. You can plant them into the ground once the soil is warm and all danger of frost has passed.
Planting Tomatillo Seeds Directly Into the Ground
In areas where there is a longer growing season, you can plant tomatillo seeds directly into the ground. The plants need at least 80 days to reach maturity, so plant your seeds accordingly.
Additionally, the soil needs to be a minimum of 50°F (10°C) before planting the seeds. If the earth is not warm enough, the seeds will not germinate properly, if at all.
What Tomatillos Need to Flourish
To provide the best possible growing environment for your tomatillo plants, you need to plant them in an area that gets a bare minimum of six hours a day of sunlight. However, the plants actually thrive in spots with full sun for 8-10 hours.
In addition to ample sun, tomatillo plants need rich soil that has been amended with good organic compost and fertilizer. How often you feed the plants will depend on the soil conditions in your garden. At a minimum, plan on applying an organic fertilizer about every four weeks.
Last, although tomatillos can tolerate some dryness, it is important not to let the soil get too dry. To retain moisture, you can cover the base of the plants with several inches of organic mulch and water whenever the top layer of soil appears dry.
Tip: Tomatillos can grow up to three feet (one meter), and they need support like a trellis or tomato cage.
How Many Tomatillo Plants to Grow?
One important thing to remember when planting tomatillos is that the plants are not self-pollinating. Therefore, you need a minimum of two plants to get any fruits at all. Some plants will naturally produce more fruits than others, so if you plan on using a lot of tomatillos, you should plant accordingly.
When to Harvest Tomatillos?
You can harvest your tomatillos when the fruits have filled the husks, at about 80 days after planting.
Although tomatillos taste the best when they are used within a couple of weeks, you can also store them longer by freezing them or canning your favorite tomatillo recipes.
No matter how quickly you eat them, you can rarely have too many tomatillos to add to your summer salsa or favorite Chile Verde recipe!