Believe it or not, the chief ingredient in salsa verde is not green tomatoes, but rather the tomatoes distant cousin, tomatillos. These green fruits grow on vines just like their cousins, but are covered in a paper husk called the calyx.
Growing tomatillos is fairly easy and if you’ve grown tomatoes, you can definitely grow these. While these fruits originated in Mexico and South America and are perennials in some hardiness zones, they can be grown as annuals virtually anywhere.
What is a tomatillo?
Typically green, there are some purple varieties. These fruits look similar to tomatoes, grow on similar looking vines and their name means “little tomato”. But, they are far from it.
Their flavor is quite a bit different than a tomato. More bright with hints of citrus with slight herbal undertones they make great fare for salsas and alongside Mexican dishes like wet burritos or chicken chimichangas.
The papery husk, or calyx, is easily removed with just your fingers to reveal the fruit inside which can be utilized for a variety of uses we will talk about later, but for now, let’s talk about how to grow these things.
Varieties to Grow and Where to Find Seeds
While native to Mexico, more and more seed companies and even garden centers are beginning to carry seeds for these yummy fruits.
While some things are dependent upon your location and growing season, there are a few general varieties that will do well for most people.
I am pretty passionate about utilizing heirloom, open-pollinated varieties whenever possible, it’s more self sufficient and it’s helping preserve our past, so we only buy from companies that utilize those practices.
That being said, Baker Creek (my favorite seed company) carries several varieties.
The tomatillos verde is a highly prolific , easy to grow variety (though, really they all are).
And the purple varieties like the tomatillo purple have a slightly shorter growing season (70 days vs 80-85) and produce a beautiful, purple, sweeter fruit that stores relatively well.
These varieties have the best reviews, best flavor, and best results, but really any variety will do fine.
When to start indoors
Since, like tomatoes, tomatillos have a long growing season, you will typically want to start them indoors and transplant them outside at a later date.
Generally you’ll want to start the seeds indoors about 6 to 8 weeks before your last expected frost. If you aren’t sure what that is, you can utilize this calculator to find out.
You’ll start the seeds the same way you start any others. Sow at around 1/4″ deep, plant 2-3 seeds per pot, and thin them after they germinate (7-14 days) and grow to about 2″ tall, pick the strongest seedling to save.
They like it warm, like peppers, so using a heat mat or making sure the temperature is above 70˚F is best.
When to transplant
You’ll need to transplant your seedlings to larger containers a time or two before setting out in the garden. Once they are about 2-4″ tall, you’ll want to move them into a larger container. You’ll continue increasing container size until you are able to transplant them into the garden.
You will want to harden your seedlings off for a few days before transplanting them into the garden. You’ll set them out for a couple of hours the first day and increase the time until they spend a full day outdoors.
Your tomatillos should be about 5-6″ tall when you transplant them into the garden, make sure that your nighttime temps are not dipping below 55˚F, if they are, the plants will need protected with a tunnel or other means.
Planting and Growing Tips
Tomatillos are really very easy to grow. They’re prolific, and if you aren’t careful, they will often reseed themselves and sprout up next year in the garden, even in colder climates.
You do need to have at least two plants to grow them for cross pollination or they will not bear fruit. They are also indeterminate meaning they will continue growing and bearing fruit until frost kills them. This is both a blessing and a curse.
It can be difficult to have enough ready for harvest at the same time, but they do keep fairly well, so it isn’t generally too big of a problem and small batch canning can solve a lot of these problems, anyway.
Well drained, loamy soil is your friend for these yummy fruits. Generally, they will do well in any soil that is suitable for tomatoes, but do not do well in really wet conditions.
Keep in mind when selecting a spot, that you want to avoid planting them in the same space that tomatoes were grown recently.
These are a full sun plant and require such for the best yields. While they can be grown in partial sun, your yield is likely to be very small in comparison.
Planting and Spacing Requirements
When transplanting you’ll want to have about 18-24″ between plants and space rows 3-4 feet apart.
You’ll want to allow plenty of airflow, especially if you’re trying to grow them in humid conditions so they can grow well.
Also, as I mentioned, you need a minimum of two plants as unlike tomatoes, these cousins do not self pollinate.
Having your garden bed prepared in advance by placing well-aged compost down before hand will help them do their thing, but they’re pretty hands off.
Recommended companion plants
Some great companion plants are those that will encourage pollinators to visit your garden like marigolds and nasturtiums.
Carrots, onions, as well as any member of the brassica family (broccoli, brussel sprouts, etc) grow well alongside tomatillos.
Also interplanting things like garlic, basil, mint, and parsley will help repel any insects that you don’t want to find on your plants.
Surprisingly, these are really pretty pest resistant and not many people have many problems with pests. That makes these another perfect example of a great choice for beginning gardeners.
That being said, that doesn’t mean they are immune to pests. Hornworms, cut worms, three lined potato beetles, and whiteflies can all effect tomatillos.
A lot of these pests can be avoided with good growing conditions, but no one is perfect.
Like pests, these plants are fairly disease resistant as well. But, things happen. Especially if you wind up with a particularly wet season or space the plants a little too closely, fungus can be a problem. The most common diseases that affect tomatillos are black spot (which can be treated with a fungicide and drier conditions), and tobacco mosaic virus (which requires quarantine).
Harvesting & Storing
You’ll know the fruit is ready to harvest when it has turned green and filled out the husk. Even purple varieties will have a green husk.
You can leave them on the vine to ripen further, but like tomatoes, they often split. The husk will also typically turn colors. These overripe fruits are not near as good for cooking.
Tomatillos can be pulled off the vine, just like a tomato. They can be slightly dried for a few days and stored in their husk for roughly 2 to 3 weeks in a paper bag in a cool place around 55-60˚F.
They can also be frozen by removing the husk, rinsing, and placing whole in freezer safe containers for up to 6 months. Just thaw them and use normally.
These are really awesome, seemingly eccentric fruits for just about anyone to grow from the beginner to the seasoned gardener. They’ll provide some color as well as flavor to your garden to expand not only your skills, but your palate.
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