Growing Tomatillos: How To Care, Grow And Use Tomatillos

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Physalis ixocarpa (fy-SAL-is iks-so-KAR-puh) is a perennial member of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family of plants.

It is a close relative of the tomato plant, and its fruit can be used instead of tomatoes, although the reverse is not always true.

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The plant’s botanical name is Greek for “inflated” or “bladder” and “glutinous” or “sticky.” These terms refer to the puffy husks that surround the sticky fruit.

You will usually hear these plants and their fruits referred to by the common name, Tomatillo (toh-mah-tee-yo).

Occasionally it is called the following common names:



  • Mexican Husk Tomato
  • Mexican Green Tomato
  • Husk Tomato or Tomate Verde (green tomato)

The native range for Tomatillo plants is in Mexico, Central America, and the Southern United States. 

Another species that is commonly known as tomatillo is Physalis philadelphica.

5 Tomatillo Growing Mistakes To Avoid

Tomatillos Care

Size and Growth

Full-grown tomatillo plants grow 3′ or 4′ feet tall with a spread of about 2′ to 3′ feet wide.

Flowering and Fragrance

Mexican Husk Tomatoes’ flowers are blowsy and yellow with purple/black centers. They are somewhat similar to those of tomato plants, but they are larger and deeper and more attractive to pollinators.

They transition into green or purple (depending upon variety) tomato-like fruits encased in papery husks. Healthy plants can yield two or three pounds of smallish, dense fruit in a season.

It’s important to note that only mature fruit of tomatillos can be picked and eaten raw.

Foliage

The foliage is very similar to that of eggplants, which are also members of the nightshade family.

Light and Temperature

These semi-tropical plants like lots of heat and lots of sun. While they can grow in partial shade, they will not thrive. Full, all-day sunlight is best.

Temperatures between 70° and 90° degrees Fahrenheit are preferred, but hotter temperatures are tolerated well.

Watering and Feeding

These plants typically do well with 1″ or 2″ inches of water per week. Use soak and dry watering methods, and avoid overhead watering.

Take care not to over-fertilize your plants. About six weeks after planting in prepared, fertilized soil, you can side-dress each plant with about a tablespoonful of fertilizer with an NPK rating of 21-0-0.

Sprinkle it on the surface of the soil surrounding the plants. Take care not to allow the fertilizer to touch the plants’ stems. Water deeply immediately after fertilizing.

Soil and Transplanting

Like their tomato cousins, Mexican Husk Tomatoes need coarse, well-draining soil. If your native soil is heavy, clayey, or soggy, you’ll be better off building a raised bed garden or planting in large containers.

Plant seedlings 3’ or 4’ feet apart in soil that has been well-tilled. You can also till fertilizer into the top six inches of soil or mulch with an inch of organic compost after planting.

You can also add a layer of black plastic mulch if you wish. This will help keep the soil warm while inhibiting weed growth.

If you want to plant your Tomatillo plants outdoors early, you can use black plastic mulch and row covers to protect the young plants against cold.

Don’t plant Tomatillos in the same garden plot or container from one year to the next. Just as with tomatoes, doing so can lead to recurrent pest and disease problems.

Grooming and Maintenance

As seedlings grow, pinch back stem tips to promote more compact, bushy growth.

Some Tomatillos have an upright growth habit. Most tend to ramble. 

The use of stakes, trellises, or tomato cages can help keep the leaves and fruit off the ground and out of harm’s way in terms of mold, mildew, snail, and slug damage.

Cages and stakes will also provide enough air circulation through the plant to prevent fungal diseases.

Keeping stems off the ground will also help prevent renegade growth. Like their tomato cousins, Tomatillos will set down adventitious roots wherever their stems come in contact with the soil.

Be sure to harvest your plants’ fruit promptly as it ripens. Don’t allow fruits to stay on the plant, which encourages mold, mildew, and pest problems. 

Sometimes the fruits will fall from the vines before they are completely ripe. Just gather them up and allow them to ripen in a cool, dry, sheltered setting.

At the end of the growing season, pull up entire plants (fruit and all) and hang them upside down in a sheltered, cool setting. You can continue to harvest any fruits that are present.

How To Propagate Tomatillos

You can easily propagate using tomatillo seeds.

Start tomatillo seeds indoors six to eight weeks before your last predicted frost. Germinate the tomatillo seeds between layers of a damp paper towel at 80° degrees Fahrenheit.

When the root emerges, transplant the tomatillo seedlings to individual containers of the sterile seedling mix.

Place the containers in a setting that has a consistent temperature of 65° to 70° degrees Fahrenheit and receives ample bright, indirect sunlight.

You can supplement with (or entirely use) artificial lighting in the form of cool, white fluorescent bulbs placed 2” or 3” inches above the young plants for fourteen to sixteen hours daily.

When your plants have between five and seven leaves, you can transplant them into your garden, providing all danger of frost has passed and the soil has attained a consistent temperature of 60° degrees Fahrenheit.

It is also possible to direct sow the tomatillo seed into the soil when there is no longer any danger of frost and the soil is consistently warm; however, in colder climates with a short growing season, you may not have enough time for your plants to produce fruit.

Note that you must always have a minimum of two Tomatillo plants if you want fruit. These plants are not self-pollinating. If you wish, you can mix and match varieties to have some purple and some green fruit.

Tomatillos Main Pest Or Diseases

For the most part, Tomatillos resist pests and diseases. If overwatered, overcrowded, or lacking in warmth and light, they may be subject to fungal problems such as powdery mildew and root rot.

Slugs and snails will eat the foliage and fruit if the plant is allowed to ramble along the ground.

Weakened plants may attract pests such as leafhoppers and aphids which can transmit viruses.

Is the plant considered toxic or poisonous to people, kids, and pets?

All members of the nightshade family have some level of toxicity. Keep your kids, pets, and livestock out of your Tomatillo patch, and be sure to wash up after handling the plants.

Don’t eat under-ripe Tomatillos, and be sure to remove the husk and wash the fruit thoroughly before using.

Is the plant considered invasive?

Tomatillos have adventitious roots and will travel if they are allowed. Furthermore, fruit that falls to the soil may result in volunteer Tomatillo plants in the coming growing seasons.

In areas where these plants can grow wild, they do. In the southern US and some parts of Mexico, they may be considered invasive weeds.

Suggested Tomatillos Uses

Fresh tomatillos are best known for their tangy, citrus flavor, making them the great main ingredient in salsa verde or guacamole.

You can also often substitute them for tomatoes in soup, stew, casserole, and similar recipes, but you cannot substitute tomatoes for Tomatillos in recipes that specifically call for Tomatillos.

Tomatoes are much juicier and don’t have the particular dense, sticky quality that makes Tomatillos interestingly tangy and citrus flavored.

You can preserve Tomatillo fruit by canning or freezing. Moreover, be sure to remove the outer husk and wash the fruit thoroughly before using or preserving it.

Tomatillos | What They Are and How to Use Them

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