What do you get when you cross the leaves of an eggplant, the fruit of a green tomato, and the husk of a ground cherry?
Tomatillos come from Mexico and Central America, and are cousins to tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers—all members of the Solanaceae, or nightshade, plant family.
If you know how to grow tomatoes, then you know most of what you need to know to grow tomatillos, though these plants will continue to thrive in the heat of our Texas summers.
At the end of the season, it’s so much fun to peel the papery husks off your tomatillo harvest and make your own salsa verde or favorite Tex-Mex dish!
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Tomatillo vs Tomato
The word tomatillo actually means “little tomato” in Spanish. Tomatillos do look a lot like green tomatoes once you remove their husks—thus their other name, husk tomatoes. But they’re very different in both flavor and texture. Tomatillos are like zesty tomatoes, and their flesh is much firmer and a little bit sticky (that sticky residue is from a special chemical that helps tomatillos ward off pests)!
Like I mentioned, they grow very similarly, but tomatillo plants can handle a bit more heat than tomatoes can. You’ll also want to make sure you always grow two tomatillos for better pollination rates, which is not an issue for self-pollinating tomatoes.
Tomatillo vs Ground Cherry
Like tomatillos, ground cherries (AKA cape gooseberries) grow in little lantern-like husks. Ground cherry fruits are typically yellow (instead of green tomatillos) and significantly smaller than tomatillos at just 1/2″ in diameter.
Ground cherries are so called because they’ll fall to the ground when they’re ready for harvest. You’ll want to harvest tomatillos long before they fall to the ground.
Flavor-wise, you’ll get some delicious tartness from both of these fruits, but ground cherries are much sweeter compared to tomatillos’ sourness.
OUR FAVORITE TOMATILLO VARIETIES TO GROW
Some of my favorite varieties of tomatillos to grow include:
Toma Verde Tomatillo: This is an early variety, which means you’ll be able to harvest in just 60 days (instead of closer to 80 days). Fruits are tart when young and become sweeter as they ripen.
Tomatillos do not self-pollinate like tomato plants do. That means you’ll need to grow two plants near each other to ensure each little flower gets pollinated for best fruit production. Otherwise, you’ll end up with lots of empty little husks—and that would be super sad!
These two plants can be the same variety, so you don’t need to buy multiple packets of tomatillo seeds or two different varieties of tomatillo seedlings from the store.
HOW BIG DO TOMATILLO PLANTS GET?
Tomatillos are fairly large plants. They have a growing pattern somewhere in between vining tomatoes (indeterminate) and bush-like pepper plants (determinate). This is why you might see tomatillos labeled as semi-determinate plants.
Most tomatillo plants will grow to be about 12″ to 24″ tall and 18″ to 24″ wide. That’s just tall enough to need a small garden trellis or some kind of support structure (such as a tomato cage or Florida weave) to help them bear heavy fruits and avoid toppling over.
Each tomatillo fruit is about 1″ to 1¼” in diameter.
WHERE TO GROW TOMATILLOS
Your top priority is to choose a site that gets full sun. Tomatillos require at least 6 hours of sun but will be much more productive with 8 or more hours a day.
Tomatillos can burn in the hot afternoon sun from the west, so morning sunlight is ideal. If your plants can receive their 6 to 8 hours earlier in the day, they’ll appreciate a little shade in the last few hours of the day. (If you notice your plants are getting scorched by late afternoon sun, cover them with a shade cloth to filter some of the harsh light.)
Once you’ve got a sunny spot selected, your next consideration is soil. Tomatillos love growing in soil that’s rich in organic matter because they’ll need lots of nutrients to form flowers and then ripen fruit. Good drainage is also important. Raised-bed vegetable gardens are ideal to give the roots of your tomatillo plants plenty of room to dig down deep for water and nutrients.
If you can plant tomatillos next to a small trellis (a panel or obelisk trellis works great), your plants will be overall healthier thanks to the good air circulation. Plus, harvests will be nice and easy. Otherwise, use a tomato cage or garden stakes and twine to support your plants and hold them upright.
Short on raised bed space? You can grow tomatillos in a large container (something that’s at least 5 gallons). Make sure your container has drainage holes to let out excess water. Grab a container-friendly variety and then follow these tips for success.
WHEN TO GROW TOMATILLOS
Tomatillos are frost-sensitive annual plants. They grow best during warm weather (when temperatures range from 55 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit).
Thanks to our long warm-to-hot growing season here in Central Texas, we can start tomatillos by seed 4 to 6 weeks before our last frost date or wait about two weeks after the chance of frost has passed to direct sow seeds outdoors. Tomatillo seeds germinate best in warmer soil (80 to 85 degrees).
Here in the greater Austin area, our last frost date is around mid-March. That means I might start tomatillo seeds indoors around early February so that I could transplant them outdoors in late March. If you’re not interested in starting your own plants by seed indoors, you can always buy young plants from a local nursery when it’s time to plant outside.
HOW TO GROW TOMATILLOS FROM SEED
To give tomatillo plants the maximum time to enjoy themselves in our gardens while the weather is ideal, we recommend starting tomatillos by seed indoors. Follow these steps to get a jump start on your tomatillos indoors in late January/February for our spring crop and in late July for a fall crop.
Make sure to follow the schedule in our seed starting guide to harden your tomatillo seedlings off before planting them in your garden. This ensures new transplants to the garden don’t experience “shock”, or basically become stressed out by too many changes at once.
You’ll wait until 2 to 4 weeks after your last frost date to transplant tomatillo seedlings outside. Add a 2- to 3-inch-thick layer of compost to the planting space beforehand. Make sure your support structure is installed now so that you don’t damage roots later.
Tomatillos, like their cousin tomatoes, can be planted all the way up to their first set of leaves. Planting them this deeply encourages the plants to form roots along the buried stem, which creates a strong foundation for later.
If you’re direct sowing tomatillo seeds in the garden, wait 2 to 4 weeks after your last frost date to plant. Again, these seeds like warm soil.
Sow seeds 1/4″ deep, and space plants 18″ to 24″ apart along the support structure. Make sure to water the planting area well. Sprouts should emerge in about 10 days.
HOW TO CARE FOR TOMATILLO PLANTS
Your main tending tasks will be fertilizing, watering, and checking for pests.
Tomatillos are heavy feeders, meaning they need lots of nutrients to produce high yields of fruit. The easiest way to understand what to feed your tomatillo plants is to think in two stages.
First stage: young tomatillo plants
Add that layer of compost when you first plant your tomatillos to give them a good start. Then, we like to use an all purpose organic fertilizer such as MicroLife Multi Purpose to encourage the plants to grow strong roots and stems.
Second stage: mature tomatillo plants
We like to use an organic potassium- and phosphorus-based fertilizer such as MicroLife Maximum Blooms once the plants are flowering. Reapply every 2 to 4 weeks. Avoid adding nitrogen at this stage, or you’ll end up with lots of lush green growth and no fruit.
Tomatillos need deep and consistent watering to produce good-quality fruit. Fluctuations in watering can cause blossom end rot. For best results, water your tomatillo plants the same way you would tomatoes. In total, they’ll need about one inch of water per week.
You can water by hand in the early morning. We recommend using a long watering wand so that you can get right to the base of the plants. Water deeply to encourage the roots to reach down, not stay shallow, to find water.
Another watering method is to install drip irrigation prior to planting, with a timer at your spigot to give your plants a deep drink at regular intervals. Garden in Minutes is a great DIY kit for installing drip irrigation in your garden.
Learn more ways to water your garden here.
Tomatillos can suffer from fungal diseases, most of which are splashed up from the soil, so watering with drip lines or gently at the base with a wand is important to prevent these diseases.
HOW TO HANDLE PESTS ON TOMATILLOS
Unfortunately, that sticky film underneath a tomatillo husk is not enough to protect your plants from all pests. Like their tomato cousins, tomatillo plants make a tasty meal for tobacco and tomato hornworms (pictured below). These are hungry green caterpillars with little “horns” on their tails, and they can devour your plants in days!
Your first warning sign will be large holes in the leaves. Search the undersides of the leaves and along the stems for signs of little green guys and pick them off by hand. Toss any pests you find into soapy water.
Aphids can also be an issue for tomatillos, especially on new plants. Use a soaker hose to spray them off or wipe them off with your hand.
If you notice eggs on the underside of the leaves in a little circle, whiteflies might be an issue. You can control them with insecticidal soap.
Thanks to their papery husk, tomatillo fruits are not very enticing to birds.
WHEN TO HARVEST TOMATILLOS
Tomatillo fruits are typically ready for harvest about 60 to 85 days after being planted outdoors, depending on the variety you’re growing.
The husk and fruit color are two indicators for harvest time. If the husk is loose around the fruit and the fruit inside feels small and hard, it’s not yet ready.
Ripe tomatillos are firm, with just the slightest softening of the flesh. The husk should be just beginning to dry to that paper-like texture and the color of straw. If you peak at the fruit inside, it’ll be green, and it should now be filling out the husk nicely. This is when the flesh will have the best tart flavor and the seeds will be smaller.
Tomatillos left on the plant too long will have a very dry husk. The fruit inside will appear more yellow. At this point, the seeds inside will be larger and the flesh less flavorful. The exception is if you’re growing purple tomatillos. The purple color will come after the green, and you’ll actually leave these fruits on the plant until the husks split open a bit for the best flavor.
Your plant might continue producing fruits after a light frost, so don’t remove your plant when you pull down your tomato vines.
HOW TO HARVEST TOMATILLOS
To harvest tomatillos, use a clean pair of pruners to cut the stem just above the fruit.
Make sure to keep your plants picked to encourage them to form more fruits for you. You can expect about a pound of fruit from each plant over the course of the growing season.
HOW TO SAVE AND ENJOY TOMATILLOS
Once you’ve got your tomatillos harvested, it’s best to leave those husks on until you’re ready to enjoy the fruit inside. Chopped tomatillos fresh from the garden make an excellent addition to guacamole and salsa. You can roast and sauté tomatillos to use them in sauces. If you’ve ever tried to use a green tomato in the place of a tomatillo in a salsa, you’ll now notice that delicious tartness a tomatillo brings (it’ll also be less juicy).
Tomatillos can be stored inside a paper bag in the vegetable drawer of your fridge for 2 to 3 weeks. For long-term storage, peel the husk, rinse and dry the fruit, and then place the fruits whole in a freezer bag.
Let us know what questions you have about growing tomatillos here in Austin, TX. We love helping you set up your own kitchen gardens and become confident gardeners. If you’re ready to set up your garden for the next growing season, now is the perfect time. Click here to start growing with us!