Growing Tomatillos: From Tomatillo Seeds to Salsa Verde

A Ripe Tomatillo

When a tomatillo is ripe, the firm fruit will split the straw-colored husk.
When a tomatillo is ripe, the firm fruit will split the straw-colored husk. | Source

Growing Tomatillos: A Tangy and Nutritious Fruit

Tomatillos are round, green fruits with a papery husk. Some varieties of tomatillo will turn purple or red when fully ripe, while others will turn yellow. When grown from seed, tomatillos will take quite a while to produce fruit: northern gardeners should start seeds indoors about six weeks prior to the last frost.

Tomatillos go by several other names, including ground cherry, jamberry, and tomate verde (green tomato). The tomatillo is a relative of the tomato, though the taste of the fruit is very different from tomatoes. Tomatillos have a sharp, citrus-like tang and are the primary ingredient in salsa verde (green salsa).

Tomatillos are indeterminate, which means they will produce fruit constantly through the growing season.

There are several varieties of tomatillos, including:

Tomatillo Varieties

Tomatillo Type
Characteristics
Purple Tomatillo
Turns purple and sweet when fully ripe. Makes a unique salsa (in both color and flavor).
Toma Verde Tomatillo
The classic, tangy tomatillo. Excellent for sauces and salsa
Gigante Tomatillo
A sweet, large tomatillo. Excellent for salsa.
Pineapple Ground Cherry
Very small fruit – becomes sweet when ripe. Excellent for salsa or jam.

Purple Tomatillos in Various Stages of Ripeness

Purple tomatillos can be eaten when green for a traditional, tangy flavor. When fully ripe, the purple tomatillo will darken to a full-purple color and will develop a sweeter flavor.
Purple tomatillos can be eaten when green for a traditional, tangy flavor. When fully ripe, the purple tomatillo will darken to a full-purple color and will develop a sweeter flavor. | Source

Planting Tomatillo Seeds

Plant the tomatillo seeds about ¼” deep. For those who live in areas without frost, the seeds can be sown directly into the ground. Northern gardeners should sow seeds into peat pots for later transplantation. The seeds will take a little longer than a week to germinate. Keep the soil moist and protect young seedlings from frost.

Transplanting Tomatillo Seedlings

Once the danger of frost is past, move the tomatillo seedlings outdoors. Transplant the seedlings into rows where the plants are about 2 feet apart. When transplanting tomatillo plants, cut off the bottom few leaves and bury the plant in the ground, leaving only the top few leaves exposed. This will cause the bottom of the plant to produce more roots, which will create a better support system for the young plant as it grows.

Tomatillo plants are quite vigorous and spreading: the plants will quickly “take over” any other plants in the bed, so be sure to provide them with their own place to grow. As tomatillo plants become quite large and sprawling, it is a good idea to use a tomato cage. This helps to keep the tomatillo plants contained and upright, and makes finding the fruit easier in the plants.

Tomatillo Plant Care

Tomatillos require similar growing conditions to tomatoes. They like warm (or hot) weather. Water frequently, and use a fertilizer high in phosphorus and potassium once the plants begin to flower.

Tomatillos are quite resistant to insects and diseases – they are a joy to grow because they are nearly maintenance-free. Some tomatillos will have problems with fungal diseases in areas with high humidity: any fungicide will work to eliminate the problem. Planting the plants with sufficient room for air circulation will help to prevent fungal problems with the plants.

Tomatillo Fruit Development

Many first-time tomatillo gardeners will panic: “My tomatillos have started to grow, but the husks are empty!”

Tomatillos grow by producing the husk first, and then the berry develops inside and gets larger as it matures. Empty husks are not a problem: they are simply the very beginning of the process! After a few weeks, the tomatillo berry will get bigger and bigger. Soon, the husks will be tight around the tomatillo fruit.

When Are Tomatillos Ripe?

Green varieties of tomatillo are ripe when the husk is tight and the fruit begins to split the husk. The husk will turn from green to a muted straw color, and will begin to appear dry. If the fruit remains on the plant, it will eventually turn yellow. The tangy flavor is lost as the fruit becomes over-ripe, so be sure to pick the berries when they are firm, green, and the husk has been split.

Purple varieties are ripe when the fruit splits the husk and the fruit is purple. Some purple varieties need exposure to strong sunlight to develop the full purple color. Note that purple tomatillos become sweeter when fully ripe: if a traditional (tangy) tomatillo flavor is desired, pick the fruit before it turns purple.

Storing Tomatillos

As tomatillos are indeterminate, it can take a week or two to obtain enough fruit to make a sauce or salsa. Tomatillos store very well, as long as the husk is kept in place. Simply pull the fruit off the plant, leave the husk in place, and store on the counter for a week or two. Once enough fruit is gathered, make a tomatillo salsa or can the tomatillos for future use. Discard any fruit that appears soft or wrinkled.

Preparing Tomatillos for Use

Tomatillos contain a very sticky substance under the dry husk. To prepare tomatillos for use, remove and discard the husks. Submerge the tomatillos in clean water and rinse the sticky film off the fruit. Drain in a colander and proceed to use in salsa or can the fruit.


Sticky Tomatillos

Skim foam from cooking tomatillos, as the foam is bitter.
Skim foam from cooking tomatillos, as the foam is bitter. | Source

Salsa Verde Recipe (Tomatillo Salsa Recipe):

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups water
  • 1 pound of prepared, husked tomatillos
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, chopped with seeds removed*
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
  • 1 Tablespoon oregano
  • ½ teaspoon cumin
  • 2 teaspoons salt

Method:

Place all ingredients into a saucepan and heat over medium heat. Cook until the tomatillos are tender. Skim any foam off the top of the salsa, as the foam can contain a bitter flavor. Once the tomatillos are tender, place the mixture into a blender and puree until smooth. Serve with tortilla chips.

*The “heat” of jalapeno peppers can vary – test your salsa and adjust the level of pepper as desired. Some people prefer “hot” salsa, and others prefer a milder flavor. Serrano chili peppers can be substituted for a milder version of this recipe.

Tomatillo Nutrition Facts

A medium sized tomatillo will contain:

  • 7% of the daily recommended intake for Vitamin C
  • 1% of the daily recommended intake for Vitamin A
  • 4% of the daily recommended intake for Vitamin K
  • 1% of the daily recommended intake for Iron
  • 3% of the daily recommended intake for Niacin
  • 3% of the daily recommended intake for Selenium
  • 3% of the daily recommended intake for Potassium
  • 1g of fiber
  • 1 gram of sugar
  • 11 calories


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Comments 16 comments

Esmeowl12 profile image

Esmeowl12 5 years ago from Sevierville, TN

I never realized tomatillos were so easy to grow! It is now on my list for my garden for next year. Thanks for the great information!


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 5 years ago from Western New York Author

They are extremely vigorous - just beware that they will take over any other plant in a garden bed! We had ours in a 4'x4' raised garden bed and they took over the tomatoes and cilantro we had planted alongside them. The bugs leave them alone - we used Liquid Fence to keep the deer away, so I don't know if deer would be attracted to the fruit or not...


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

I just may have to try growing them and if not, they are a constant in the grocery stores. Thanks for your tomatillo sauce recipe. Will plant to make some soon. I enjoy eating it in Mexican restaurants. Did not realize that it is so healthy. Now as to the chips...darn, I knew there was a hitch! Ha!


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 5 years ago from Western New York Author

Peggy, we usually use our tomatillos for enchilada sauce - which would also be healthy if it didn't involve fried tortillas, lol! Now, if only tortilla chips were healthy!


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 5 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

I may try to grow some next year. I totally adore these.


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 5 years ago from Western New York Author

Austinstar, they are really easy to grow. They seem to be pest-free, at least in our area. Nothing ate them, and they grew without any problem. I like easy vegetables to grow! We did use Liquid Fence to keep the deer away - I'm not sure if they would have nibbled on them, but our deer are pretty pesky.


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 5 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

darn deers. They are pesky. Having dogs in the yard usually keeps them away. The worst thing for growing food right now is the historic drought in Texas. Are these drought tolerant plants?


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 5 years ago from Western New York Author

I'm not sure how drought tolerant they are... we live in the north so the conditions here tend to be hot/humid in the summer with weekly rain showers. They take similar care to tomatoes, so they do take regular moisture - they wouldn't fare well in a xeroscape, but if they got some water every week they'd do fine.


Zetu 5 years ago

Where to buy tomatillo seeds in Cape Town or Johannesburg, I want to start planting them?


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 5 years ago from Western New York Author

Hi Zetu - you might try an eBay listing that is willing to ship internationally. Check your local customs requirements, though - a UK online site like this one (http://www.nickys-nursery.co.uk/garden-shop/seeds/... might be a better choice for purchasing seeds in South Africa...There is also this company, which appears to be based in South Africa - http://www.premierseeds.co.za/


southafrican 4 years ago

@ Zetu, try www.livingseeds.co.za they have an amazing range of organic and heirloom seeds.


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

Southafrican, thanks for the link! I am located in the U.S. so the link from a South African source is much appreciated!


livelonger profile image

livelonger 4 years ago from San Francisco

Wow, a fascinating Hub! I don't think the weather is warm enough here to grow tomatoes or tomatillos, but what a pity: the purple ones are gorgeous. I LOVE salsa verde, too. I occasionally buy them from Mexican markets, so thanks for the tip for blanching/cooking them.


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

Livelonger, you do need a warm summer (at least) to grow tomatillos. We live in frozen Western NY, but our summers are hot enough to grow them. It might be worth a try, though it is probably easier to buy them in northern California! We miss Mexican food a lot - we have to make it ourselves now that we live in the middle of nowhere!


davenmidtown profile image

davenmidtown 4 years ago from Sacramento, California

This is a beautiful hub that is not only full of useful information, but is complete in its information. It takes the gardener/chef from seed to table and I think that is very important when introducing foods to new consumers. @livelonger: I grew up on the coast and we grew tomatoes. They will do fine if you find them a shelterd spot next to a building... sheltered being out of the wind. Start with a cherry tomato or a sweet 100. I know you just put in garden boxes but you can shelter a tomato there using a few posts and some burlap. Adding mulch to the top of the soil will also help to keep the ground temperature up.


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

Thank you, davenmidtown! It is possible to grow tomatoes on the coast (along with tomatillos). My grandmother grew lovely tomatoes in Costa Mesa, but I have to admit that it was in Southern California and the weather was warmer than it is in the bay area. Cherry tomatoes are fabulous (and you can make sun dried tomatoes for focaccia bread, etc. with them)!

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