This week I was a guest on Margaret Roach of A Way to Garden.com‘s radio show. We spoke at length about growing tomatillos as well as other edible crops of the same genus (Physalis). You can listen to that episode over here.
Tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa) have only recently gained popularity as a backyard garden crop across North America and are definitely worth growing if you’re a Mexican food nut. I first learned of this tomato-like fruit on a trip to southern Mexico many years ago. At first I thought the tangy, green sauce we were served with quesadillas was made of green tomatoes, until I did some research and discovered it was a different fruit entirely. Back at home I started buying salsa verde in cans at a Latin American food store in Toronto’s Kensington Market. I honestly believed for a time that store-bought was good enough and couldn’t be improved until I grew my own and learned just how wrong I was. Like their botanical cousin the tomato (both plants are nightshade or Solanaceae family plants), tomatillos are infinitely better tasting when grown at home organically. They are sweeter, tarter, more flavourful, and complex. They are a surprise.
Since then, growing tomatillos and canning up my own homegrown salsa verde has been a part of my yearly routine. If you can grow tomatoes, you can grow tomatillos. They are both sun worshippers with fairly similar needs. However, I’ve found that tomatillos are actually quite a bit easier than their finicky cousins, requiring less water and fertilizer to stay happy. They are less prone to diseases or pests—I’ve never had any problems at all, except with cutworms, which can be a problem in-ground. All-in-all, their papery husks seem to act as a convenient cover that seems to protect growing fruit from any possible invaders.
If you’ve grown tomatillos once, chances are high that they’ll pop up on their own for years thereafter. They’re so tough I’ve had plants come up in the shallow gravel covering the tarpaper part of my old apartment roof! Unfortunately, I have found that because tomatillos need a very long growing season (80-120 days), these self-sown volunteers come up too late to produce a real crop. For that reason you are better off tossing them into the compost and starting your seeds much earlier indoors.
Growing Tomatillo from Seed
- Tomatillos need a long season (80-120 days depending on the variety).
- Start seeds earlier than tomatoes to ensure a good harvest, about 8 weeks before the last frost.
- Plant transplants outdoors about 2 weeks or so after the last frost.
- Grow at least two plants to ensure successful cross-pollination and larger yields.
Tomatillo Growing Tips
- Like tomatoes, fertilize with a nitrogen based product like fish emulsion early in the season and then back off when flower buds appear.
- You may allow plants to sprawl along the ground, but they are more likely to suffer insect and critter damage.
- Staking keeps plants compact in tight spaces. The fruit is heavy so I suggest staking securely (I use bamboo poles formed into a tripod).
- Harvest when the papery husks are filled and bursting open.
Tips for Growing Tomatillo in Containers
I typically grow tomatillos in containers and have had amazing success in some very difficult conditions. A few years ago I purchased a VERY large plastic storage bin from the housewares section of a department store for about $6-8. I drilled lots of holes in the bottom, filled it with potting soil and a bit of duck manure, and mulched the top with straw. I set the bin into a warm and sunny, south-facing spot. Because the bin was so oversized, I was able to plant both plants into it with no repercussions. That fall I enjoyed my best tomatillo harvest ever.
- 16″+ deep containers are best, although I have had success, but smaller yields with 12″ pots as long as I was careful not to let them dry out.
- Mulch containers with a thick layer of straw to keep the soil from drying out too quickly.
- Grow one plant per pot (unless you use an incredibly large bin like I did)
Grow Tomatillo as an Ornamental
Tomatillo plants are a lot more decorative than tomatoes. They can be trained onto stakes or allowed to grow wild. They produce pretty yellow flowers and dangly papery lanterns on crooked stems. The purple varieties including ‘Purple de Milpa’ and ‘Purple’ are the prettiest with a bit of purple in the stems, leaf veins, and husks. In 2012 I had two tomatillo plants and absolutely nowhere to put them save a bare patch in a new perennial bed I had just dug up. I planted them there and was surprised to find how well they integrated into the bed as an ornamental.
My Tips for Making Homegrown Salsa Verde
Salsa verde can be used for more than a chip dip or taco sauce. I also cook vegetables, chicken, and fish in it and serve over rice.
- I put onions, garlic (sometimes), peppers, and fresh cilantro into my homegrown sauce. I leave the cilantro out when canning.
- I’m not a fan of hot sauces so I use peppers such as ‘Poblano’ or ‘Pasilla Bajio‘, which have a more complex flavour and lend only a little heat.
- Rather than cooking the sauce on the stove, roasting or charring them on a grill adds a smoky flavour. Do not use oil if you plan to preserve the sauce in jars.
- Roast all of the ingredients together in the oven at one time. Remove the pepper peel if you are planning to can.
- Use lime juice to add acidity rather than lemon juice or citric acid.
Update: This giveaway is closed. Thanks!
THERE ARE 2 WAYS TO WIN, and each of the winners chosen at random will win 1 Salsa Fiesta Collection Gift Seed Tin courtesy of Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply who is a sponsor here at You Grow Girl. The gift set contains seed from ten different vegetables and herbs that can be grown to make several different types of salsa, including both a purple and a green tomatillo.
Please note that this giveaway is open to US residents ONLY.
All you have to do to enter is answer the following question:
Do you make your own homegrown salsa? Please share your hints, tips, and favorite ingredients, or go ahead and just say “Count me in” if you’re feeling shy.
After commenting below, click over to Margaret’s tomatillo post at A Way to Garden.com and comment there for a second chance at the prize.
Winners will be drawn randomly after entries close at midnight on Monday, February 25, and informed by email.
Thanks again to Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply, in the business of providing supplies for organic gardening since 1976, for their support of You Grow Girl and A Way to Garden.