This tomato relative is an essential ingredient in Mexican cooking. It’s also known as the husk tomato, because the 2- to 3-foot tall bushy plants produce 2-inch diameter green or purple-colored fruits with a papery husk around them. They’re cool to look at, easy to grow, and the fruits have a sweet, tart, citrus-like flavor. Use tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa) when making salsa, chili, kebabs, salads, and other Mexican dishes. Tomatillos are prolific and unless you’re making tons of salsa and Mexican food, you’ll probably only need a few plants.
I grow a relative of the tomatillo called the ground cherry, too. This smaller plant has sweet-tasting, cherry-sized golden fruits inside papery husks that can be eaten raw. Kids love to “discover” the yellow fruits inside the husks and pop them in their mouths.
When to Plant
Like tomatoes, tomatillos need a long, warm growing season to produce the most fruits. Start transplants indoors 6 weeks before your last frost date or buy seedlings from a local garden center.
Where to Plant
Tomatillos need full sun and well drained fertile soil to grow their best. They are a bushier plant than most tomatoes. Plant tomatillos where they won’t get shaded by taller plants such as corn. They also can be grown in containers.
How to Plant
Amend the soil with compost before planting. You can plant directly into the garden soil or lay black or red plastic mulch on the planting bed two weeks before transplanting to preheat the soil. Poke holes in the plastic and plant tomatillo seedlings 3 feet apart. Like tomatoes, you can plant the stems deeper in the hole if they are tall and leggy and they will root along the stem.
Care and Maintenance
Keep the soil moist and weeded. If you’re not growing in plastic mulch, add a layer of organic mulch, such as straw around plants, once established. Add a small handful of an organic fertilizer, such as 5-5-5, around each plant monthly to keep them growing strong. Since these plants can get bushy, consider placing a small tomato cage around each one to keep the fruits off the ground and away from insects and diseases.
Tomatillos are attacked by many of the same pests that attack tomatoes. Use newspaper wrapped around the stems 2 inches above and 1 inch below the ground to ward off cutworms. Hand pick hornworms and Japanese beetles. Select disease resistant varieties, rotate crops, not planting any tomato-family crops in that bed for 3 years, and remove any self sown tomatillo seedlings from previous years to avoid diseases, such as blight and wilt.
When the husks turn a light brown color, the husks split and the fruits are firm, cut the tomatillos fruits from plants. Check the plants often since mature fruits will drop to the ground. Keep harvesting, and if frost is predicted, pick any fruits that are close to ripe, bring them indoors and store in a well ventilated warm room. Like tomatoes, tomatillos will continue to ripen indoors.
Tomatillo varieties have either green or purple colored fruits. ‘Toma Verde’ is a green variety that matures a few months after planting. ‘Purple’ is sweeter flavored with purple skin and flesh and makes a unique colored salsa.
Text excepted from the Northeast Vegetable and Fruit Gardening book.