Bright red juicy tomatoes get all the attention. Even people who wouldn’t call themselves gardeners have grown them. I’d go so far as to say that the tomato is the most popular garden vegetable. But for some reason, we don’t seem to give as much love to the tomatillo.
I’ll confess, I prefer this tangy paper-wrapped fruit because I think it makes the best salsa. As a lover of Mexican cuisine, the tomatillo is a must-have in my garden. I think you should be growing tomatillos in yours as well, whether you love salsa or not. Sometimes called husk tomatoes, these fruits are more resistant to disease and have a dense interior with a bright, vegetal flavor. You can use them in tons of recipes, and they can even go in some dishes that tomatoes couldn't handle.
Difference Between Tomatoes and Tomatillos
Tomatoes and tomatillos belong to the same nightshade family, but they’re slightly different plants. An unripe green tomato, for instance, isn’t the same thing as a tomatillo. Tomatillos don’t turn red and are covered in a husk. They also taste different. While they retain the acidity of the tomato, there’s a flavor undertone that’s tough to pin down, but it makes them perfect for salsa making.
Here are a few of the best varieties if you want to break into growing tomatillos. I'm a personal fan of the Toma Verde.
Purple – This type has a dark purple skin that adds color to the garden. It's a lot sweeter than other green-colored tomatillos and makes a great snack fresh off the plant. Purple is equally delicious in salsa.
Purple Coban – Another purple-colored variety, this one is an heirloom. It matures in 70 days.
Toma Verde – This type is quick-maturing tomatillo (60 days) that produces relatively large sized fruits. It's an excellent ingredient for any Mexican recipe.
Tomayo – Tomayo yields big green balls of semi-sweet tomatillos. Another excellent choice for salsa-making.
Amarylla – A yellow colored variety that matures in about 60 days. Amarylla is good for salsa but sweet enough for other types of preserves.
Rio Grande Verde – For the gardener looking for a plant that yields big fruits, this variety is the number one choice. The tomatillos are almost as big as apples!
Growing tomatillos is similar to growing tomatoes, with a few critical differences.
The tomatillo is suitable for growing in zones 4-12 as an annual. In zones 10-11 it grows as a perennial. It's a fruiting plant that loves the warmth and full sun, like its red-skinned cousin.
Plant in Pairs
One significant difference between the tomato and tomatillo is that you’ll need to plant more than one tomatillo plant in your garden since it’s not self-pollinating. Don't worry, if you're saving seeds, the tomatillo will not cross-pollinate with your tomato plants.
Purchase starts from your local nursery or start seeds indoors. Nightshade family plants will be some of the first seeds you’ll sow indoors because they take some time. Tomatillos take about 8 weeks before they'll be ready to harden off.
In my zone (5b), I tend to start mine towards sometime in March. I used to start them earlier, but our last frost date seems to be moving further and further into May as the years go on. Plant seeds 1/4-1/2 inch deep.
Use heat mats to provide warmth to these summer-loving plants. I typically start eggplant, pepper, tomato, and tomatillo seedlings at the same time and position them on the same shelf with a large heat mat underneath the seed flat. Germination typically takes around a week, give or take, depending on the variety.
Plant out your seedlings once there’s no more risk of frost, usually several weeks after the last frost date. You’ll transplant tomatillos at the same time you’d transplant tomatoes. Like a tomato, you can bury the stem of a tomatillo seedling fairly deep to encourage root growth.
Harden plants off for a week before putting them in the garden.
To succeed at growing tomatillos, the soil should be a sandy, well-drained loam. Plants prefer a pH between 6.0-7.0.
Tomatillos need full sun, at least 8 hours per day.
Plants need 18-24 inches in between one another, with 36-48 inches between rows.
Make sure to stake or cage growing tomatillos like you would tomato plants. Providing support encourages upright growth, so disease doesn’t get picked up by sprawled vines. With support, you can also avoid crowding out nearby plants and keep your garden looking tidy.
You can also grow these plants in containers. It’s how I usually grow them. I keep a few large pots on my balcony for overflow plants that don’t fit in my garden and often I’ll have a few pots of growing tomatillos. I like to have them in pots because if they’re prolific producers, I’ll bring them in when it gets cold to elongate the season and get more life from the plants.
Caring for Tomatillos
Here what you need to do to keep your tomatillos happy throughout the season.
Water your growing tomatillos regularly, like you would tomatoes. Avoid significant changes in moisture to prevent deformities and cracking of skins. Soil should not be soaking wet, though. Plan on giving about 1-2 inches per week.
Tomatillos are like tomatoes, so they love the warmth, but fluctuating temperatures are a no-go. Only transplant them outdoors when summer temps have stabilized, and there's no risk of frost. In a Northern climate, that can be difficult, since sometimes the summer weather can be unpredictable. If you've planted in containers, bring the pots in if nighttime temps dip too low.
Mulch to conserve moisture and help warm the soil.
Fertilize as needed and not before testing your soil. Typically, tomatillos do best with a low-nitrogen, water-soluble fertilizer once per week.
It’s not necessary, but I like to prune both my tomato and tomatillo plants to keep my garden tidy. Otherwise, things quickly get unmanageable. Prune like you would a tomato plant by removing suckers between stems. I often cut off full stems on my tomato plants to encourage air circulation and avoid a messy garden bed. Since I grow my tomatillos in containers, I don’t prune them as aggressively.
Don’t plant in the same area where you planted nightshades in the previous year.
You’ll need to start growing tomatillos indoors before your last frost date since most varieties have a fairly long wait until maturity. You may re-sow mid-summer in some areas and get a second crop. I’d suggest, instead, choosing varieties with different maturity dates, to stagger your supply of paper-wrapped fruit.
Tomatillo Problems and Solutions
Wondering what could go wrong when growing tomatillos? I haven't had too many issues. With proper care, the plants aren't particularly disease-prone. In my zone, I'm often at the mercy of the weather, though!
- No fruit, husks are empty: Oops! You only planted a single tomatillo plant. You’ll need more than one to get any viable fruit because the tomatillo does not self-pollinate. I like to have at least three plants in case.
- Blossom drop: A number of things may be happening. You may have fertilized without testing your soil first and added too much nitrogen to the earth. Fluctuating temperatures or irregular watering are other potential causes for blossom drop.
Flea beetles are irritating little creatures that munch on the foliage of plants. A homemade spray should do the trick if you encounter them and need to get rid of them, but they’re usually not a big problem especially not with nearly mature plants.
Again, you’ll encounter diseases you’ve likely had to deal with or have heard about when growing tomatoes. Mosaic virus included, which eventually kills off plants. Affected plants should be destroyed and promptly removed from the garden.
Black spot is a fungal infection that leaves dark spots on foliage, but may eventually affect fruit appearance if left untreated. Certain fungicides may be applied to treat the issue, but to avoid it in the first place it’s best to ensure proper air circulation between plants and avoid overwatering.
Anyone who has taken care of a garden is familiar with these critters. If they start nibbling on your leaves, use your favorite slug control.
Finding tons of tiny greenish bugs on your growing tomatillos? You probably have aphids – they're common in every garden. Look for curling, yellowing leaves, tiny bugs (they can also be pink, brown or yellow), or the honeydew that they leave in their wake. Blast them off your plants with a strong spray of water and then use neem oil to control them.
Cutworms chew through a plant at the base, causing the tomatillo to die. Turn your soil before planting to make sure you expose any hiding larvae. Use cardboard plant collars and diatomaceous earth to keep them away. Hand pick any that you find.
These arachnids suck the life out of your plants. You'll notice yellowing and browning leaves and lots of little spider-like insects. Prune away impacted leaves, and spray the plants with water. Use neem oil to control them long-term.
This nasty fungus will cause sunken, mold-covered spots on fruit. It spreads via water like rain or irrigation. Give plants plenty of room, keep them pruned back to increase air circulation, and put plenty of mulch down to prevent the fungus from moving from the soil to the plant. Pick fruits as soon as they are ripe, because they are particularly susceptible.
This is a soil-borne fungus that will cause one side of your tomatillo plant to die while the other side looks fine, or it may impact one side of the plant's leaves. Choose resistant varieties, remove any infected plants, don't apply too much fertilizer and sanitize all your tools and cages in between use.
Root Knot Nematode
These worms attack plant roots and cause stunted growth. The best way to avoid them is to practice good crop rotation and to buy resistant varieties.
Companions for Tomatillos
Wondering what to plant next to your tomatillos? Here are some examples of good and bad neighbors for this plant.
Bee-friendly flowers such as marigolds are an excellent companion for this plant. They’ll help ensure blossoms are pollinated. When growing tomatillos, pick the following companions:
Harvesting and Storing Tomatillos
It’s time to harvest these green tomato-cousins once they’ve almost burst from their husks and the husks dry out, usually 60-80 days after transplanting. Don’t wait too long, the flavor changes if the fruit is overripe. Yellower fruit is usually sweeter, though, so feel free to let a few ripen for snacking. Watch out for sweet-toothed birds and squirrels!
Keep the husks on to help persevere the fruits in storage. They’ll keep in the fridge for a few weeks.
Recipes for Using Up Your Tomatillos
While tomatillos are most well-known as the perfect ingredient for salsa verde, they're not a one trick pony. Here are a few recipe ideas for using up your tomatillo harvest.
Salsa verde – Yes. Of course. We'd be silly not to include this one our list of recipes. I love making green sauces with this fruit and adding it to chilis and bean stews with some cayenne pepper. There's nothing better than a freshly made tomatillo salsa. Grab a bag of tortilla chips and roast the tomatillos before adding them to your salsa and you'll impress your guests with a delicious snack.
Green Shakshuka – An alternative to the traditional eggs with red-sauce. Use tomatillos for a twist on this super easy-to-make meal.
Posole – Add tomatillos to this traditional soup for an acidic kick.
Green chile – Whether you choose pork, chicken, or turkey as your protein, you can't make chile without some kind of tomato and tomatillos give a flavorful boost to this dish.
Enchiladas – I'm not a fan of mole sauce, but I do love my enchiladas smothered in green sauce. Make a fantastic sauce out of garden tomatillos to top your baked enchiladas.
Let us know what your favorite variety of tomatillo is! Do you prefer them to regular tomatoes or do you grow both? What's your favorite go-to salsa recipe?