The tomatillo is a relative of tomato, ground cherry, gooseberry, and other plants in the nightshade family. Fruits grow enclosed in a papery outer husk and are green, yellow, purple, or red when ripe. A staple ingredient in salsa verde, this Mexican native can grow as a short-lived perennial in frost free climates or be cultivated as a warm weather annual in cooler climates. Plants grow quickly and can get quite large, so help them out with support from a trellis. Note that tomatillos are lovers, so whether growing from cuttings or seeds, you’ll need at least two plants in your garden in order for pollination to occur and fruits to form.
The De Milpa Tomatillo is an heirloom variety, producing many small fruits (<1″ diameter) that ripen to green and purple. It has a stronger and sharper flavor than some other tomatillos. Said to grow like a weed with very little care in Mexican corn fields, it provides supplementary nutrition and income for farmers. Plants are more compact than some other cultivated types, reaching only 3–4 feet in height.
Seed Depth: 1/4″
Space Between Plants: 18–24″
Space Between Rows: 36–48″
Germination Soil Temperature: 75–80°F
Days for Germination: 14–40
Sow Indoors: 6–8 weeks before average last frost date.
Sow Outdoors: Not recommended unless you are growing in a warm climate (above USDA Zone 9).
Vegetative: Some sources have cited success growing tomatillo from cuttings; however, we recommend that you start your plants from seed.
Grows best in warm and hot weather and requires warm soil for germination. Similar to tomatoes, they’re quite drought tolerant and will do well in a container if you live somewhere with a short outdoor growing season. Originally native to Mexico, plants are not frost tolerant.
Natural: Full sun.
Artificial: Grows best under HID lamps. Use MH for the vegetative growth and switch to HPS when you want the fruit to start forming. Needs at least 8 hours of light daily.
Soil: Prefers well-drained, loamy to sandy soils with a high amount of organic matter.
Soilless: Start seeds in a standard nitrogen-, phosphorous-, and potassium-based soilless mix.
Hydroponics: Thrives in a media-based hydroponic system. Use perlite or clay beads to support the roots.
Aeroponics: Cuttings will root in aeroponic systems.
Water: Requires moderate amounts of water during the growing phase. Cut back once fruit has begun to form. Aim for about 1–2 inches per week. Consistent moisture will provide the best results.
Nutrients: Requires moderate to high levels of nutrients to support its fast growth. Feed with a compost tea or liquid seaweed during growth phase and switch to a fertilizer that is higher in potassium and phosphorus later in the season to promote flowering.
Mulching: Use mulch to suppress weeds and maintain consistent soil moisture.
Other: Use a trellis, stakes, or cages to support plants and keep foliage and fruits off the ground. This support for vertical growth will help with pest and disease issues and also reduce the amount of space needed for each plant.
Rotation: A 2- to 3-year rotation away from all plants in the Solanaceae family is recommended to help prevent pest and disease issues.
Companions: Grows well with basil, parsley, marigolds, nasturtiums, onions, carrots, hot peppers, peas, and asparagus. Avoid corn, dill, fennel, potatoes, eggplant, and kohlrabi.
Harvest: In late summer, fruits should have reached 1/2–1″ in diameter and can be picked from the plant when the fruit is green or purple and when the husk has begun to dry and turn brown. Use care when harvesting, as ripe fruits are fragile and easy to bruise or crush.
Storage: Store fruits with husks intact in a cool place like the refrigerator or a root cellar. Keep them in a paper bag or container that allows air flow. Green fruits will store for up to 3 weeks.
Fun Fact: The Aztec were likely the first to cultivate tomatillos way back in 800 BCE. Since then, this plant has spread all over South and Latin America. Today, tomatillo plants grow wild in many parts of the US and are commonly found scattered across the Great Plains.
Preserve: Fruits can be frozen whole in freezer bags after the husk has been removed. Tomatillos can also be made into a sauce or jam and canned for later use.
Prepare: Quintessentially Mexican, the tomatillo is a key ingredient in green salsas and can also be added in guacamole to reduce the fat content. The paper husk must be removed before eating but can be kept on during roasting. If removing the husk prior to cooking, be sure to wash the fruit to remove the sticky residue that occurs naturally on the fruit. The flavor is sweet and tangy, and fruits can be eaten raw in salads or cooked in stews, dips, or sauces. Try roasting in the oven to add a smoky flavor to your salsas. They can also be sliced and fried in batter.
Nutritional: Contains vitamin(s) C, K, and B. Also a good source of various minerals including iron, magnesium, potassium, manganese, copper, and calcium.
Medicinal: Some studies have suggested that the tomatillo plant may contain chemicals and compounds that assist in preventing certain cancers, including thryoid, breast, and leukemia. The vitamin A content in tomatillos may also contribute to healthy skin and mucus membranes!
Try this delicious tomatillo and avocado salsa recipe for a tangy topping for your favorite Mexican food.