If you love your salsa verde, then you already love tomatillos. These little fruits often get confused with standard-issue green tomatoes when in fact they represent a completely different (if related) plant. Casual cooks and professional chefs alike enjoy grilling these tangy-sweet fruits and using them to flavor stews, soups, side dishes, and of course salsas. Better yet, you don’t need to limit yourself to whatever tomatillo products your grocery store keeps in stock — not when you can grow the plants and harvest the fruits in your own garden. If you’d like to learn how to grow tomatillo plants, read on.
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The Tomatillo Plant: An Introduction
People have been cultivating tomatillo plants since at least 800 B.C., when the Aztecs turned them into a staple food. Today’s gardeners and cooks have access to several varieties of tomatillos, so the first step in your tomatillo-growing journey involves choosing the right varieties for your tastes and needs.
The two most common varieties of tomatillos include Toma Verde and Purple tomatillos. Toma Verde tomatillos, the most popular of all varieties, produce large, green, moderately tart fruits. The Purple variety produces relatively sweet purple fruits. You may also wish to look into varieties such as Pineapple (which produces small, sweet fruits) Cisneros, and Verde Puebla (both of which will yield large, green fruits).
When to Grow Tomatillo Plants
Like their tomato cousins, tomatillo plants won’t survive in cold soil, so gardeners must wait until overnight ground temperatures hover above 55 degrees Fahrenheit. You can grow tomatillo plants from seed outdoors as soon as the frost season in your part of the country has passed. If you’d rather get a head start, either purchase seedlings from your local garden supply shop or start your seeds indoors six to eight weeks before the frost season finally ends.
Setup, Soil Quality, and Planting Techniques
Tomatillo plants thrive in sandy, well-drained, dry soil with a relatively neutral acidity level. A pH balance of 5.5 to 7.3 should do nicely. to get your plants off the best possible start, cover the soil with a couple of inches’ worth of compost or mulch. (You shouldn’t need to repeat this process once the plants have started to grow; it’s just a good way to “kick-start” the plants.) Allow at least three feet between each seed so your tomatillo plants can grow freely without crowding each other.
Plant your tomatillos reasonably deep to help their stems take root as the plants develop. Since tomatillo plants can attain mature heights of three to four feet, they will start to droop toward the ground once their fruits start weighing them down. This contact with the ground makes the fruits vulnerable to pests (see below), so you should support them with tomato cages or gardening trellises to prevent this potential problem.
How to Care for Your Growing Tomatillo Plants
Once you’ve planted your seeds or seedlings into nutrient-rich, mulch-covered soil, you’ll be amazed at how easily and insistently your tomatillo plants will grow with minimal further input on your part. While these plants don’t do well in downright soggy climates, they manage equally well in humid or dry air. However, you will need to give them about an inch of water per week. As for fertilizer, tomatillos are one of those plants that don’t really need it, making them even easier to cultivate.
As hardy as tomatillos generally are, they can suffer the same vulnerabilities to pests and diseases as other members of your garden. Thankfully, they face fewer such threats than many other plants. Watch out for tomatillo pests such as whiteflies, tobacco budworms, tomato fruitworms, aphids, cutworms, and root-knot nematodes. Your garden supplies provider can advise you on specific pesticides (or in the case of the nematodes, an effective nematocide) to keep these predators away from your plants. If you let your tomatillos hang or drop onto the ground, you’ll also need to worry about snails and slugs — so go ahead and invest in those trellises or cages.
Tomatillo diseases also merit close attention and preventative measures. Examples include powdery mildew, leaf smut, root rot (in damp conditions), black spot, and tobacco mosaic virus. If your plants have started to fail late in the growing season, suspect powdery mildew. You can spot by the presence of green spots on the leaves that turn yellow over time. Black spot lives up to its name by leaving black spots on the leaves and/or fruits. You can control mold and mildew-related problems with fungicides. If a plant develops black spot, make sure to quarantine it from the other plants.
When and How to Pick Your Tomatillos
A tomatillo seedling generally takes 75 to 100 days to grow into its mature form. However, you might start seeing fruits within 65 to 85 days. Tomatillo fruits are encased in husks as they develop, giving them an odd resemblance to paper lanterns. They aren’t considered ripe until they start popping out of these protective husks. You don’t necessarily need to wait this entire process out — it depends on what taste you’re seeking from your tomatillo fruits. An unripened tomatillo fruit, while safe to eat, will boast a tarter flavor than the mellower, sweeter, more mature fruits.
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Don’t leave tomatillo fruits on the plants past their “expiration date.” If you fail to pick the fully mature fruits as soon as possible, they may rot. If the husk looks brown, thin, and papery, it’s time to pick that fruit. If you do end up with some rotten tomatillos, take them away from the plants and dump them in the trash or compost heap. Harvest all the others at the same time so you won’t have stray seeds sowing themselves and creating a disorganized, unhealthy tangle of plants before the next harvest.
Of course you want to get those tomatillo fruits off the plants and onto your kitchen counter before the first frost of the year strikes. Unfortunately, that first frost can defy the forecasters and threaten to appear prematurely, despite your best efforts to time your tomatillo harvest correctly. If you face this problem, remove the tomatillo plants from their usual outdoor setting and hang them upside-down in a covered (but unheated) space like your garden shed or garage. This little trick can help you preserve your tomatillo fruits for several weeks. If you can’t perform this protective measure, go ahead and pick your tomatillos. They may be smaller and less sweet than you’d prefer, but can probably still put them to good use in various dishes.
After you’ve harvested your tomatillo fruits, or can use them right away, or you can store them in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks (maximum) as long as you keep them inside their husks. Make sure to wash the sticky stuff off of them before including them in your favorite recipes. All that’s left to do next is — enjoy!