Horticulture Magazine

Tomatillo Plant Care & Growing Tips

a tomatillo plant bearing fruits

Tomatillo Overview

Official Plant NamePhysalis ixocarpa
Common Name(s)Tomatillo
Plant TypeFruit
Native AreaMexico & Central America
ToxicityEdible Fruits
FoliageDeciduous
FlowersSmall flowers followed by lantern-shaped fruits in papery husks
When To SowMarch, April, May
Harvesting MonthsAugust, September
Sunlight

Preferred
Full Sun

Exposure
Sheltered

Size

Height
1 – 1.5M

Spread
0.5 – 1M

Bloom Time
July / August

Soil

Preferred
Most Soil Types

Moisture
Moist but well drained

pH
Any

If you are looking for something different to grow in your garden, tomatillo could be something to consider.

Fans of Mexican cuisine may already be familiar with these fruits, which are used in a range of recipes, but particularly for salsa verde. The tomatillo is a great plant to grow along with tomatoes at home if you want to make your own salsas and sauces.

What is Tomatillo?

green tomatillos with their husks on a white background
Tomatillo fruits

The Tomatillo, Physalis ixocarpa, is a relative of the tomato, pepper and aubergine (Solanaceae), and is more closely related to the Cape Gooseberry, Physalis peruviana. It is sometimes also known as the husk tomato or Mexican green tomato.

Tomatillos come from Mexico and Central America, and have been an important food crop in that region for thousands of years. Now, they are cultivated and eaten all around the world. And they can grow well in UK gardens.

They are sprawling plants which will grow up to around 1-1.2m in height, with a bushy, floppy form. Small, insect-pollinated flowers form, and tomatillo fruits emerge, surrounded by a papery husk. You will need to grow two plants for proper pollination.

The fruits are usually green (though some purple varieties are also available). They will usually grow no larger than around golf-ball size.

Why Grow Tomatillo?

The primary reason to grow tomatillo is for their edible fruits, and the opportunity to enjoy them in salsas and a range of other recipes. Harvested while green, the fruits have a tangy taste, which has been described as a combination of tomatoes and limes. Some find them bitter when raw, though the flavour is said by most to be more appealing when the fruits are cooked.

Some of the very best salsas can be made using tomatoes and tomatillos. And so if you already grow tomatoes at home, it could be a great idea to add tomatillos to the mix.

Another thing to note is that, while few would consider them a replacement for tomatoes, they can help in gardens where tomato pests and diseases are a problem. They could be at least a partial substitute for tomatoes that don’t make it through. Since they are far more resilient crops and are resistant to a range of tomato problems.

Tomatillos produce abundantly. Two plants are usually considered to provide more than enough tomatillos for a typical family.

Where to Grow Tomatillo

green lantern-shaped tomatillos
Like little green lanterns

Tomatillo can be grown in a greenhouse or polytunnel, or outside across much of the UK. Interestingly, a study found that growing under cover did not significantly impact the size of the harvest or rate of maturity. However, in colder regions, it may be easier to grow these successfully under cover.

Tomatillos do best in full sun, in a warm, sheltered location. They prefer a moist yet free-draining, fertile soil, and are relatively drought tolerant once established.

If you are growing undercover, it is very important to make sure that there is access for the insects required for pollination. Unlike other crops like tomatoes and squash, the tomatillo does not seem to respond well to manual pollination. So you need to make sure there are plenty of insects around in order to achieve good fruit set.

Sowing Tomatillos

Tomatillo seeds should be sown in March or April, ideally in an unheated greenhouse or polytunnel, since nighttime temperature fluctuations are said to aid in successful germination. Germination will generally take place within a couple of weeks or so.

As soon as the seeds have germinated and seedlings are large enough to handle, they should be placed into individual pots. After this, they can be placed out into their final growing positions in the garden, or potted on into larger containers for container growing. Be sure to wait until all risk of frost has definitely passed in your area.

Note: while tomatillos will fruit in containers, they will do better and produce much more abundantly when grown in the ground.

It is crucial to make sure you get the timings right when planting out tomatillos. These are warm season crops, and cannot tolerate even a light frost for a single night. If in doubt, err on the side of caution and plant out a little later.

Care Tips for Tomatillo

Tomatillos require much the same care as tomato plants. Like most tomatoes, tomatillos will do best when provided with some support. Tying them in to a trellis, cage, or stake system can help make sure their fragile stems are not damaged by wind, and that fruits do not cause the plants to flop over, leaving fruits dangling onto the ground. It is a good idea to get support structures in place before you plant out your tomatillos, so you do not accidentally damage roots putting support structures in place.

Note however that you should not tie in tomatillos to supports right away. A natural stage of the growth of these plants involves the central stem flopping over to meet the soil. Once this happens, lateral roots are sent out, and heavy fruit-producing shoots form. It is these fruit producing stems which can benefit from some support once fruits begin to form.

When planting out your tomatillos, do as you would with tomatoes and bury them a little deeper in the soil than they were in their previous containers. The stems that are buried below the soil should develop new roots, leading to a healthier and larger root system. This, in turn, leads to healthier and somewhat larger and more productive plants.

Water consistently, making sure that you deliver the water to where it is needed, at the base of the plant. Do not water from above if possible. Keep soil moist but avoid overwatering, and do not let water sit around the plant roots.

Mulch around the base of the plants with an organic mulch, for slow release fertility, to suppress weeds, and to conserve moisture in the soil or growing medium. Like tomatoes, tomatillo may benefit from a mulch of comfrey leaves, for example.

Feed tomatillos as you would feed tomatoes and other members of this plant family, with a potash-rich organic feed while the plants are flowering and fruiting. Comfrey tea is one organic liquid plant feed to consider making for this purpose. Tomatillos are not as heavy feeders as tomatoes, but will still grow best when provided with fertile conditions and will appreciate some feed during the summer. Plants grown in containers will typically require a feed more often than plants grown in the soil.

Unlike tomatoes, tomatillos will not benefit from pinching out the growing tip. Leave them to grow and sprawl naturally (with some support) for best results.

As mentioned above, tomatillos are largely untroubled by pests and disease, so other than their basic care, they should be very easy and not at all time-consuming to grow.

Harvesting Tomatillo

tomatillo plant growing in a garden
Harvest your fruits before they self-seed

Tomatillos are typically ready to harvest in autumn, around 75-100 days after seedlings were transplanted. Harvest when the fruit has mostly filled the papery husk. It is best, in order to protect the fruits, to keep them within their husks. However, some people prefer to wait until the husks just start to split open before harvesting.

Make sure that you harvest all ripe fruits, since those that fall to the ground may well emerge as new seedlings next year. In optimal conditions, self-seeding can be prolific.

As soon as the plants begin to die, remove any remaining fruits and place them on a sunny windowsill where they will continue to ripen a little more. Alternatively, you can uproot the whole plant and hang it upside down in a cool location (such as a garage or shed) for the remaining fruits to ripen.

The fruits can be used in the kitchen right away, but will also store for several months inside their husks, to be used later. Fruits will split husks can be stored at room temperature for a week or so, or in the fridge for up to around three weeks. Husk free fruits can also be frozen for later use, or canned/bottled as part of canned salsa recipes.

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