By Saffyre Falkenberg
Tomatillos are a relative of the nightshade family, like the tomato. They have been grown in Mexico for centuries and were an important aspect of Mayan and Aztec culture. While they commonly come in green, tomatillos can also be yellow, red, or purple. Though similar in appearance, the tomatillo tastes much different than the green tomato.
The plant itself typically grows to be around three feet tall, and the flowers come in a variety of colors, including white, yellow, and purple. An inedible, papery husk grows around the tomatillo fruit as it ripens. Once fully ripe, the tomatillo can split the husk. Tomatillos are a staple in Mexican and Central American cuisine due to their tart flavor. Although they can be used for a variety of purposes in the kitchen, they are commonly made into salsas. Tomatillos can be eaten raw or cooked and have ample amounts of fiber, vitamin C, potassium, and manganese.
Growing Conditions for Tomatillos
Tomatillos love the sun and are sensitive to frost, so make sure to plant them in late spring when there’s no chance of a cold snap. They do not self-pollinate, so to get tomatillo fruit, plant at least two tomatillo plants so that they can pollinate each other.
How to Plant Tomatillos
Start tomatillo seeds indoors six to eight weeks before planting outside. If you live in a warm climate with no chance of frost, you can start the seeds outside. Once the plants have sprouted and they are ready to be transplanted outside, choose an area that gets full sun and has enough room to keep two to four feet of space between plants. They need soil that is well drained, as they originate from a warm climate and are generally drought resistant. Because not all tomatillo plants grow straight, some may benefit from a trellis or tomato cage.
Care of Tomatillos
When you have planted the tomatillos outdoors, put mulch around the base of the plants to lock in moisture and discourage the growth of weeds. Although tomatillos are from a dry climate, they do well if they get around an inch of water per week.
Garden Pests and Diseases
Because of the husk, birds and other animals do not bother tomatillos as they would tomatoes. Flea beetles, slugs, and snails can be irritating pests that affect the tomatillo fruit, so make sure to watch for insects chewing through the leaves. Tomatillos are susceptible to several diseases, including early blight, anthracnose, late blight, and tobacco mosaic virus. Remove any diseased plants to keep the disease from spreading, and make sure to rotate crops to help prevent diseases.
Usually, tomatillos can be harvested from midsummer to early fall. It can be difficult to tell when to harvest tomatillos because they each mature to a different color. The best indication of ripeness is the husk—ripe tomatillos are firm and split through the husk. Cut the fruit from the stem, and leave the husk on until ready to eat or prepare. Use any damaged fruit as compost. Store harvested tomatillos in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Varieties of Tomatillo
There are several types of tomatillos that are especially suited to growing in a home garden.
- Cisineros: These produce large, green fruits.
- Di Milpa: These are a small, wild variety of tomatillo.
- Pineapple: These produce small, yellow fruits that have a slight pineapple flavor.
- Purple: These produce large fruits that are generally sweeter than the green ones.
- Toma Verde: These produce traditional green tomatillos.
- Verde Puebla: These produce large, green fruits and tend to yield quite abundantly.
Uses for Tomatillos
As a staple in a Latin cooking, tomatillos have many uses in the kitchen. They can be eaten raw or cooked, making them a versatile addition to your pantry. When you’re ready to use your tomatillos, peel the husk off and wash the sticky residue from the skin of the fruit. Tomatillos can be used in verde salsas, sauces, chili, and soups. They can also be pan-fried or roasted to complement meat dishes.
The tomatillo is a durable, low-maintenance plant perfectly suited to beginner gardeners. As a staple in Mexican cooking, it makes a wonderful and tasty addition to any gardener’s kitchen.