The tomatillo plant is an intriguing addition to any garden. Growing inside papery husks that often resemble hanging lanterns, tomatillos are tart in flavor. The plant’s fruit, reliability and unique growth habit have all helped contribute to its rise in popularity. Today the tomatillo plant is an increasingly common sight in gardens.
Sometimes known as husk tomatoes, these plants originated in Mexico where they were supposedly domesticated by the Aztecs. Today they are grown in many areas of the United States, particularly Texas and New Mexico.
Easy to grow, the fruit of the tomatillo plant is a fascinating addition to any garden. If you regularly grow tomatoes, you will find tomatillos pleasingly similar.
From sowing the seeds to harvesting the fruit, this guide will take you through everything you need to know about the tomatillo plant.
Varieties of Tomatillo
Before we learn how to grow the tomatillo plant, you will need to select a variety to grow. This decision is going to, at least partly, be dictated by your location and local growing conditions.
Whichever variety you choose to grow it should be able to grow and mature within your growing season. Gardeners with short growing seasons should either grow quick maturing varieties or try cultivating undercover.
Amongst the most popular varieties are:
- Toma verde, the most commonly grown variety it produces green, golf-ball sized tart fruit. Toma verde is an extra early variety. You will be able to harvest the fruit 60 days after sowing.
- Amarylla is a popular variety for gardeners in northern areas. As the fruit matures it changes color, from an immature green to a ripe yellow.
- Purple is an heirloom variety that produces sweet tasting, purple fruit.
- Verde Puebla is another reliable variety. It produces large green fruit in heavy yields.
While there are some key differences between the different varieties, all plants produce the distinctive husks. These add interest and texture to an outdoor space.
How to Sow Tomatillos
While you can purchase young plants from garden centers, tomatillos are easily started from seed. Sowing from seed often also gives you a wider choice of plants.
The tomatillo plant is commonly grown as an annual. However, they can be perennial in USDA hardiness zones 10-11.
This tomatillo plant is not a self-pollinating plant. If plants aren’t pollinated they won’t produce fruit. The easiest way to encourage pollination is to plant in small groups. Aim to have at least 2 plants each group.
Growing from Seed
Place the seeds in a bright location, undercover. Covering the trays with a plastic lid, or placing inside a clear plastic bag will help to maintain temperatures and encourage germination. Remember to regularly check the soil to ensure it doesn’t dry out.
If the temperature is above 64°F, germination takes place within two weeks. In cooler temperatures germination may take slightly longer.
Following germination, grow the seedlings on in small pots. Seedlings started in trays can be transplanted into small, 8cm pots when they have developed at least 3 true leaves.
Place the seedlings in a light, bright location. Aim to keep the soil evenly moist. After a month of steady growth, a dose of liquid tomato fertilizer can be applied. This encourages strong, healthy growth.
In warmer climates, you can sow seeds directly into the ground once the last frost date has passed.
Seeds started in trays will need to be thinned out as they grow. Wait until the seedlings are large enough to handle, and have produced a few true leaves, before transplanting.
Don’t transplant until the temperature regularly passes 50 °F. As the seedling roots begin to fill their pots, harden off the plants.
The tomatillo plant does best in a full sun position. The plants will also grow in partial shade, however growth may be slower. Plants in partial shade may also not flower, or fruit, as abundantly as plants growing in full sun positions.
The soil should be well draining and fairly pH neutral. Avoid planting in extremely acidic or alkaline soil. Working in organic matter, such as homemade compost, before planting improves drainage and aerates the soil. It also gives freshly planted plants a nutritional boost. This helps them to become established as well as promoting strong healthy growth.
Dig a hole in the soil. It should be deep enough so that, when planted, the lower leaves should sit just above the soil. Planting to this depth encourages additional roots to emerge.
After planting, apply a 2-3 inch layer of organic mulch. As well as discouraging weeds that can smother young plants, this also helps the soil to retain moisture.
The amount of space a tomatillo plant requires depends on the variety. Most varieties require around 3ft of space. Check the information on the seed packet for the exact spacing distance before transplanting.
Like tomatoes, you can also grow tomatillos in grow bags or containers. A 5 gallon container, filled with good quality, general purpose compost, will comfortably hold one plant.
How to Care for a Tomatillo Plant
The tomatillo plant requires the same care and attention as the tomato plant. Unlike tomatoes, the tomatillo plant suffers from fewer problems. It is also less attractive to pests.
While the fruit may look exotic, the tomatillo plant is pleasingly easy to care for. Ensure the plants have enough light and moisture and are well supported.
Water and Feeding
The tomatillo plant dislikes drought conditions. Don’t let the soil dry out completely. Instead water little and often. Remember, plants in containers require more frequent watering than those in the ground.
The tomatillo plant thrives in humid conditions. In particularly humid areas you will only need to water the plants during extended dry periods.
If planted in rich soil, fertilizing is not necessary.
A dose of tomato plant feed can be applied to encourage growth. If you choose to feed the plants, consult the instructions on the packet to determine how much to apply. Liquid feeds, such as Miracle-Gro water soluble tomato plant food, is easily incorporated into your watering routine.
Alternatively homemade feeds are just as effective. These come with the added bonus of allowing you to know exactly what you are putting in your soil.
While pruning isn’t necessary it does help to improve the health and yield of the plant.
Before you begin to prune, decide how many central stems you want the tomatillo plant to have. 2 stems produce more foliage, which protects the fruit, and also encourages a larger yield. 1 stem produces a lower yield, but the fruit ripens more quickly. This is a better option for gardeners with short growing seasons.
As the plants grow, suckers emerge in the junctions between the side branches and the main stem. Pinching these out enables sunlight to access the centre of the plant. It also helps to improve air circulation. However removing suckers also reduces the yield. Try to adopt a balanced approach, removing some but not all of the suckers.
Suckers are best pinched out when they have at least two leaves and are 3-4 inches long.
Pinching off the growing tips helps to control the plant’s spread. This is useful if you are growing in a confined space.
Tomatillo Plant Support
The tomatillo plant requires support, either from stakes or tomato cages. This support is vital when the plants are heavy with fruit. Ample support will prevent them from toppling over.
When tieing the plants to the support, don’t tie the stem just below the flower cluster. This can result in deformed fruit.
Companion planting is a reliable way of attracting beneficial insects such as pollinators to a garden. It can also encourage heavy yields and healthy growth.
Pollinator attracting flowers such as marigolds and nasturtiums are particularly helpful. These also discourage potentially harmful pests such as white flies and nematodes. Planting herbs, such as basil, nearby will also help to deter pests.
A super useful companion plant, marigolds will not only help to deter pests but they will also attract pollinators to your plants. This helps to increase yield.
Root crops such as carrots and onions are also good tomatillo plant companions. Root crops help to break up the soil. This makes it easier for tomatillos to establish themselves. Meanwhile planting onions closeby helps to deter spider mites and other pests.
Asparagus is also a good companion plant. It helps to deter root nematodes from attacking your crop. The combination of basil, parsley, onions, and tomatillos is often planted together.
Plants to Avoid
Corn and Kohlrabi tend to stunt tomatillo plant growth. They can also attract harmful pests. Eggplants and potatoes should also be avoided for this reason.
The tomatillo plant is largely trouble free. While garden pests, including slugs, snails, and beetles, may target the foliage, the fruit is largely left untouched. Should an aphid infestation strike, use a hosepipe to wash the pests away. Insecticidal soap can also be applied to eliminate problematic pests.
Small or Deformed Fruit
Small fruit is often a sign of poor pollination. Empty husks are another sign that pollination has failed.
Planting in groups is the most effective way of encouraging pollination. Planting pollinator attracting flowers and herbs nearby also encourages the process. Finally, try to limit your use of insecticides. This encourages more bees to your garden.
Fruit production may also be impaired if temperatures regularly exceed 85 °F, or humidity levels pass 90%. These conditions discourage plants from forming fully functional reproductive parts. This, in turn, can reduce yields or prevent fruit from growing.
When to Harvest Fruit
Deciding when to harvest tomatillo fruit can be tricky. As the fruit ripens it will begin to fill out the papery husk. When the husk is full it will begin to split. Harvest your fruit when the husk begins to split.
Harvesting too early, before the husk splits, means that you may be picking fruit that hasn’t fully sweetened. Waiting until the husks have fully split before harvesting can leave you with overripe fruit. These will lack the tart taste and the firm flesh of ripe fruit.
The color of the fruit may help you to decide when to harvest your tomatillo plant. The fruit of some varieties change color as they ripen. Other varieties may indicate ripeness by the husks turning brown or leathery, instead of splitting.
How to Harvest
The fruit of the tomatillo plant can simply be picked from the plant. This is exactly the same as harvesting tomatoes. As you peel the husks you may notice the fruit is covered with a sticky film. This is natural and can be gently washed away.
Fruit you aren’t using immediately can be kept in a paper bag in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks. Keeping the husks on will further protect the fruit.
You can store the fruit over a longer period in a freezer. To freeze the fruit, peel the husks and place the fruit in a freezer bag. The fruit can also be sliced before freezing.
Storing Whole Plants
When to harvest tomatillos is dictated by the ripeness of the fruit. If temperatures begin to fall, or the first frost of the winter approaches, while fruit remains on the plant it need not be lost. Instead lift any still healthy plants and hang them upside down in an unheated garage. Plants can be kept like this for up to 3 months.
If fruit is still on the plants when the first frost approaches, the plants can be lifted and stored in a cool dry place. They can be kept in this condition for up to 3 months, allowing you to enjoy fresh fruit for longer.
The tomatillo plant is an interesting addition to any allotment, raised bed or container garden. Surprisingly easy to cultivate, the plants are similar to tomato plants. Unlike tomatoes, the tomatillo plant is pleasingly problem free. It’s easy growth habit, combined with the interesting, flavorsome fruit, means that the tomatillo plant is increasingly growing in popularity.