How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Tomatillo Plants
Thinking of growing tomatillo in your garden this season but aren't sure where to start? Tomatillo is an amazing vegetable to add to any garden! They are easy to grow, and can compliment many other veggies in your garden. In this article, organic gardening expert Logan Hailey walks through how to grow and care for tomatillo in your vegetable garden, step by step!
An essential ingredient in salsa verde and southwestern chili, tomatillos are tomatoes’ tart, more acidic cousin. Though their name technically means “little tomato” in Spanish, tomatillos are a different plant entirely. They are also remarkably vigorous, disease-resistant, drought-tolerant, and more distinctly flavored than their tomato counterparts.
In early summer, the chartreuse husks of tomatillos dangle like little lanterns waiting to be filled with ripened, tropical-flavored fruits. These plum-shaped nightshades are native to Mexico and also go by the names “Mexican husk tomato”, miltomate, “mexican ground cherry” or the Latin names, Physalis philadelphica and Physalis ixocarpa.
If you’ve been wanting to add some diversity to your summer garden and enjoy the bold flavors of a zesty salsa verde, tomatillos are remarkably easy to grow and harvest! Let’s dig into planting, growing, and caring for these unique husk-covered temperate fruits.
Plant Type Annual vegetable
Plant Family Solanaceae
Plant Genus Physalis
Plant Species P. philadelphica or P. ixocarpa
Hardiness Zone USDA zones 5-12
Planting Season Late spring, 2 weeks after last frost
Plant Maintenance Low
Plant Height 3-4 feet
Fertility Needs Low
Temperature 70-90° F is ideal
Companion Plants Cilantro, garlic, yarrow, onions
Soil Type Well-drained loam
Plant Spacing 24-36
Watering Needs Consistent moisture is best
Sun Exposure Full Sun
Days to Maturity 60-80 days
Pests Potato beetles, aphids, hornworm
Diseases Early/late blight, blossom end rot
History and Cultivation
Tomatillos are tomato relatives with a whole host of culinary uses and health benefits. Their husked green fruits are a pleasure to grow, harvest, preserve, and eat! Modern breeding efforts have generated incredibly vigorous varieties that are easy to grow and generous with their yields. Let’s explore the fascinating cultural and botanical background of the noble “husk tomato”!
What Are Tomatillos?
Tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa) are annual nightshade-family plants that bear small, tart, plum-shaped fruits wrapped in husks. These frost-sensitive plants grow on farms and in the wild throughout the tropics.
In temperate gardens, they are planted in late spring or early summer for warm season harvests. The tomatillo plant can be upright like a tomato (especially with the help of trellising) or it can vine and sprawl low to the ground (hence the name of the closely related, small-fruited “ground cherry”, Physalis philadelphica). The stems are slightly hairy and the leaves are ovate with jagged edges.
When tomatillos flower, their distinct yellow blossoms have five fused petals and darker spots in the center. The plants need pollen from a neighboring plant to produce their tart fruits. You will notice the bright green husks forming first, and then the tiny fruit- technically a berry- begins to grow inside. Only the fruit is edible and the rest of the plant parts are considered mildly poisonous.
Tomatillos are usually about 2-3 inches in diameter. They can be eaten raw or cooked, and are often included in traditional jams, chutneys, salsas, soups, and stews.
Where Did They Originate?
Most infamous for their inclusion in salsa verde recipes, tomatillos have been used in Mexican, Guatemalan, and other Meso-American cuisine for millenia. They were probably first domesticated by Azetc or Mayan farmers around 800 BC, but may have been collected from the wild for a long time before that. The word “tomatillo” comes from the nahuatl word tomatl. In Guatemala, it is called miltomate.
Scientists at Penn State recently uncovered a pair of fossilized wild tomatillos over 52 million years old! That means tomatillos were growing at the same time when giant ancestral rhinoceroses and 8 foot tall carnivorous birds were roaming Meso-America. After their excavation in Argentina, these ancient lantern fruits completely changed the botanical world’s understanding of the nightshade plant family’s origins.
Like most nightshades, tomatillos are predominately propagated by seed. Their flattened round seeds are reminiscent of yellow lentils and handled similarly to tomato seeds.
Most tomatillo varieties take 60-80 days to mature. You can start tomatillo seeds indoors 6 to 10 weeks before the expected last frost date for your region. This will prepare them to be planted out around the same time as you transplant their cousins, bell peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes.
If you would like to directly sow tomatillo seeds in the garden, wait until outdoor nighttime temperatures are consistently above 55°F, typically in late spring or early summer at least 2-3 weeks after the final frost date.
These seeds are easy to germinate and tend, but if you don’t have a seed-starting setup, tomatillo plant starts are also widely available. Keep in mind that unique varieties of purple or yellow-orange tomatillos may be difficult to find as nursery starts and need to be seeded in your home nursery or directly-sown in your garden.
Filling Seed Starting Trays
Prepare 6-packs or 4” pots with a quality, well-drained seed starting mix that is rich in organic matter. Don’t pack the medium into the cell too densley. Use your finger to make a small shallow imprint in the center of the cell about ¼” deep.
Decide How Many Seeds To Plant
Tomatillo plants produce impressively huge yields, so you don’t usually need to plant many of them (unless you really love salsa verde and plan to preserve massive amounts of it). These fruits are much higher yielding than their tomato relatives.
For a small family who likes salsa verde, I would recommend planting just 1 to 2 tomatillo plants per person. However, you may want to start double this amount of seeds to have backup or replacement plants in case anything goes wrong. Remember that you need at least 2 plants in your garden to ensure proper pollination (tomatillos have self-incompatible pollen and need a neighboring plant to actually produce fruit).
Tomatillo seeds usually stay viable for 3 years under proper storage conditions (cool and dry in their seed packets).
Sow tomatillo seeds ⅛” to ¼” deep at a rate of 1-2 seeds per hole. Lightly cover with a thin layer of potting mix or vermiculite and gently water in. Keep the seeds consistently moist and warm until germination.
Water, Warmth, Thinning, and Tending
Tomatillos love a warm, cozy environment. A heating mat will speed up germination and promote even sprouting amongst your seedlings.
Tomatillo seeds take 7-14 days to germinate and prefer temperatures between 75 and 95°F. Once they grow their first true lives, be sure to thin plants to 1 per cell. Grow the baby tomatillos for 6-8 weeks until they have robust root balls and the weather has thoroughly settled out in your garden.
If you’ve ever planted tomatoes, it will be very easy for you to plant and grow tomatillos as well. The process is almost identical and can be done at the same time as your other Solanaceous crops (eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes).
Tomatillos are extremely frost-sensitive and shouldn’t be put out in the garden until night temperatures are reliably over 55°F. The ideal soil temperature in the garden is between 70 and 80°F. This is typically 2-3 weeks after the last frost of the spring, often between March and May in many parts of the United States. Due to their cold sensitivity, tomatillos are best planted about 2 weeks after your early tomatoes.
The tomatillo seedlings should be at least 4-6” tall and have strong root balls before planting. Check that the plants have ample amounts of healthy, green leaves and any early flowers pinched off before transplanting. Flowers that grow on baby plants are often a sign of stress and should be removed to allow the plant to channel its energy into root and shoot establishment.
Tomatillo plants can grow quite large and sprawl about. The full-grown plants grow 3-4 feet tall and spread 2-3 feet wide or more.
Trellis or No Trellis?
If you’re growing with a trellis, plant tomatillos about 24” apart in rows 1-2 feet apart. You can use classic tomato cages, stakes with string, or the “Florida Weave” method. You can also let tomatillos ramble up cattle panels or fencing.
If you plan to let tomatillos sprawl along the ground, plant them 36-48” apart in rows 2-3 feet apart. Keep in mind that harvesting takes a bit more time when they aren’t trellised.
Like tomatoes, tomatillos are eager to root all along their stems as they establish. This is called adventitious rooting, or the ability of plants to develop roots from any tissue (such as from their stems). This creates resilient, durable plants with deep root zones for scouring water during drought and holding strong in windy conditions.
To get the most out of your tomatillos’ adventitious rooting preferences, plant the seedlings deep into the soil. Depending on the size of the start, you can even remove some of the lower leaves as long as there are 3-4 pairs of healthy leaves left above the surface.
Prepare rich loam garden soil just like you would for the majority of your vegetables. Consider adding a generous helping of quality organic compost. Use a broadfork or digging fork to loosen the lower layers and ensure good drainage. Be sure the area is weeded and raked smooth.
Before transplanting, ensure that you’ve properly hardened off your baby tomatillos. These nightshades are very cold-sensitive and need 1-2 weeks to adjust to outdoor temperature fluctuation.
I prefer to harden them off along with my pepper plants by placing them in a protected area of the patio where they still receive plenty of light. A layer of lightweight garden fabric (row cover) can help keep them cozy at night while still getting them adjusted to the world outside the nursery.
Measure, Dibble, and Tuck
When you’re finally ready to get these babies in the ground, lay out a measuring tape to mark out your spacing. Use a hori garden knife or a shovel to prepare holes that are 1.5 to 2 times larger than the size of the root ball. Grasp the seedling by its base and gently wiggle it out from its cell. Place the baby tomatillo in the hole and backfill. There is no need to press down or compress the soil, as tomatillos prefer a loose soil with excellent drainage.
Water in tomatillos thoroughly to help with establishment. These can be quite drought tolerant plants, but they need consistent moisture in the beginning to get established and prevent blossom end rot.
Sporadic watering may lead to issues with the fruiting. At the same time, a soggy soil will lead to very slow-growing, even wilty or diseased tomatillos. Consider using drip irrigation or soaker hoses to keep the beds moderately moist.
How to Grow Tomatillos
When growing tomatillos, it’s important to cover all your bases. You want to make sure you plant them where they will get adequate light, water, the right type of soil, and the right type of fertilizer. You’ll also want to take companion planting with tomatillos into your thought process if you plan on growing them with other plants. Let’s take a look at each step in more detail.
This plant family is called Solanaceae for a reason: they love the sun! Their flowers are even shaped like little yellow sunshines. Tomatillos undoubtedly need full sunlight and warmth to thrive.
Plant tomatillos in an area of the garden that receives 6 to 8 hours of full direct sun every day. Avoid anywhere that may get shaded out by trees, shrubs, or structures. They will tolerate partial shade, but may grow slower and yield less.
Tomatillos are far more drought tolerant than their tomato cousins. These semi-wild plants are willing to withstand similar conditions to their desert-like native lands of Mexico and Meso-America. However, the best yields come from moderately consistent moisture throughout the season, especially during flowering and fruiting.
Inconsistent water (periods of drought and then sudden, deep waterings) can lead to blossom end rot. Aim to give them about an inch of water per week to keep the soil moist, but never soggy.
Being somewhat wild, tomatillos are not that picky about their soil either. The only thing they really hate is heavy, soggy, clay soils that don’t drain.
If you’re growing in clay soils, consider using raised beds, a broadfork, and ample compost to improve the drainage of the area. However, it’s best to avoid super manure-rich compost that is high in nitrogen. Instead, opt for decayed leaf litter or rotted vegetable compost.
Though their fruits are known for their acidity, tomatillos prefer a soil that is fairly neutral, ideally between 6.5 and 7.0. But remember they aren’t super picky. They will grow just fine as long as there’s sunshine, heat, and regular watering.
Heat heat heat! Tomatillos love the warmth. Warm soil and warm sunshine are often enough to keep them happy. The ideal growing temperature for these tart salsa verde fruits is between 70 and 90°F, but they can definitely handle hotter.
Although tomatillos are more prolific and drought tolerant than their tomato cousins, they are far less cold-hardy. These cold-sensitive plants cannot handle temperatures below 45°F and will definitely die if they are exposed to frost.
Tomatillos are light feeders. In fact, it’s best to avoid fertilizing them with nitrogen fertilizer at all. An excess of nitrogen can result in unwieldy foliage growth with very little fruit production. However, a balanced addition of phosphorus or potassium (like fish fertilizer, bone meal, or compost) can help you maximize tomatillo yields.
Tomatillos are really laid-back in the garden. Once they’re planted, they really do their own thing and tend to grow somewhat wildly. They are far more easy going than tomatoes/
Trellis Similarly to Bush Tomatoes
The only maintenance I usually do on tomatillos is keeping them on their trellis so they don’t ramble all over the place. There is no need for extensive pruning, clipping, or tying like you do with indeterminate (vining) tomatoes.
Instead, just treat a tomatillo like a determinate (bush) tomato and guide it to grow up its cage or stay within the bounds of fencing and string. This will keep the plants upright so that fruit doesn’t rest or rot on the ground.
At last, the fun part! Harvesting tomatillos is a fun scavenger hunt because the little lantern husks fill out at different times. A looser, vibrant green husk has just begun to develop the little berry inside. When the husk has just started to dry out a little bit and feels firmer, you can see that the fruit has grown to fill out its papery home.
Ripe Tomatillos Fill the Husk
Don’t harvest tomatillos unless they have reached the edges of the husk. They should be firmer than a tomato but not hardened. Ripe tomatillos are typically vibrant chartreuse green (unless you have chosen a unique colored variety).
Pick and store tomatillo with the husks intact. Cool them rapidly to prevent splitting or cracking.
If the husk is super loose and the fruit is too hard, it is probably underripe. If The fruit is very yellow in color or the husk is too dried out, the tomatillos are probably overripe.
Whether you like a classic (truly green) salsa verde or you want to switch things up with a vibrant purple tomatillo, there’s an abundance of Physalis varieties to choose from.
- ‘Super Verde’: An extra large, lime green tomatillo hybrid that produces big, early yields and has easy-peel husks for quick processing. 60 days.
- ‘Toma Verde’: This early green tomatillo has larger, flattened round fruits great for salsa and cooking. 60 days.
- ‘Rio Grande Verde’: These special, large tomatillo fruits are apple-green and extra delicious. The plants are medium-sized and don’t require staking. 85 days.
- ‘Purple Coban’: Lots of flavor and even more color! This deep violet tomatillo is an heirloom from the mountain town of Coban, Guatemala. They grow about 1 inch in diameter, starting out green and ripening into an array of purple hues.
- ‘Amarylla’: This Polish twist on the classic Mexican tomatillo has gorgeous golden-yellow fruits with peach-colored husks. This variety was bred for cooler summer conditions. They mature in just 60 days and are extra sweet for jams, jellies, or fresh snacking.
- ‘De Milpa’: This long-storage Mexican heirlooms grow wild and unattended on the borders of traditional corn fields (milpas). The fruits store fresh for many weeks and aren’t too watery, making them perfect for fresh salsas and chutneys. After harvest, the greenish-yellow fruits begin to blush with a beautiful purple color. 70 days to mature.
Thanks to their previously wild nature in the mountains of Mexico and Guatemala, these resilient Solanaceous plants hold their own in the garden. Tomatillos are far more disease-resistant than peppers and tomatoes. Their abundance of sticky fruits are also less likely to get attacked by pests. If you do have any tomatillo problems, they’re usually quick and easy to deal with.
Potato beetles don’t just attack potatoes- they’ll go for tomatillos and tomatoes too. When they target our husked salsa verde plants, they can cause some pretty annoying side effects. The three-striped potato beetles look a lot like cucumber beetles, except they lay orange eggs on the undersides of tomatillo plants and eat the heck out of their leaves.
To prevent potato beetles on tomatillos, use insect netting or row covers early in the season. You can also hand-pick individual beetles. Worst case scenario, use a diluted neem solution spray to kill off potato beetles and repel future colonizers. Diatomaceous earth dusted on the leaves can also be effective at dehydrating the potato beetles and killing them off, however you will need to re-apply if it rains.
These tiny sap-suckers seem to feed on just about every plant in the garden. If you notice them on your tomatillo stems, leaves, or fruits, it’s time to grab a hose and spray down the plants with a strong jet of water to wash the bugs away. You can also apply a diluted pyrethrum or neem oil solution mixed with a dollop of dish soap to smother aphids and kill them off.
Thankfully, hornworms are pretty uncommon on tomatillo plants. But if they take hold, these caterpillars of the hawkmoth can completely defoliate the tomatillos in just a few days! Although hornworms typically go for other nightshades (namely tobacco and tomatoes), keep an eye out for their fat, green bodies and pick them off before they eat through your salsa verde plants.
Blossom end rot happens when the flower-end of a tomatillo fruit ends up blackened and rotten inside the husk. The sunken, dark-colored cankers appear on the lower end of tomatillo fruits and usually renders them inedible. This isn’t actually caused by a disease, but rather from plant stress. A deficiency in calcium and uneven soil moisture are the main culprits of blossom end rot.
To prevent it, be sure that your tomatillos’ soil is consistently moist throughout the growing season. Amend with crushed eggshells and balanced organic fertilizers and microbiologically-rich compost. Avoid synthetic ammonia-based nitrogen fertilizers that can cause a calcium “lockup” in the soil.
Like tomatoes, tomatillo foliage can be subject to this grayish-brown fungal disease that usually starts on the lower leaves of the plant. The blight won’t necessarily harm your tomatillo fruits, but it can slow production and harm your plants.
Prevention is key: plant tomatillos with sufficient spacing and air flow, especially in humid climates. Prune off lower tomatillo leaves to keep the plants off the soil.
Add a layer of organic mulch (like chopped leaves or straw) at the base of plants to keep rainwater from splashing spores up onto the leaves. You should also avoid overhead irrigation that may spread blight around the garden.
Only the mature fruits of tomatillos are edible. They can be enjoyed raw in salsas, slaws, chutneys, jams, and as garnishes. They are also cooked into stews, soups, roasts, and meat dishes.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you take care of a tomatillo plant?
Tomatillo plants love full sunlight, warm weather, and consistently moist soil. They are fairly easy going and don’t require much tending or fertilizer once established. Be sure that you plant at least two tomatillo plants for adequate pollination
What is the best fertilizer for tomatillos?
Tomatillos are light feeding crops that don’t usually need fertilizer. In fact, too much nitrogen can cause an excess of foliage growth and less fruit yields. Quality compost is usually sufficient to improve the drainage of the soil and provide trace minerals.
Can tomatillos be grown in pots?
Tomatillos can be grown in pots, but it is best to use a trellis or tomato cage to keep them contained. These large sprawling plants can grow 3-4 feet tall and 2-3 feet wide, so a pot needs to be fairly large to support them.
Do tomatillos need full sun?
Tomatillos absolutely love basking in full, direct sunlight. While they can grow in partial shade, their growth may be slower and yields are often smaller.
Tomatillo vs. Tomato: What’s the Difference?
Tomatillos have completely different leaves and fruits than tomatoes. The most noticeable characteristic of tomatillos is the papery lantern-shaped husk that covers the fruit. Unlike tomatoes, tomatillos need to be removed from their husk before eating. The two fruits also have very distinct flavors. Tomatillos are more tart and acidic than tomatoes. They can have a bright, tangy, earthy, and subtly citrusy or tropical flavor.
Tomatillos are remarkably resilient plants with fascinating ancient roots. They are beginner-friendly, sun-loving, and willing to thrive in drought conditions.
Whether you chop them up and toss them in a classic salsa verde or experiment with some unique Mexican, Guatemalan, Honduran, or Indian dishes, having tomatillos in the garden is a nice way to diversify your meals and try out new tropical-inspired flavors.