How to Grow and Harvest Tomatillos

A tart gift from Mexico, tomatillos (Physalis philadelphica) are commonly used by chefs and home cooks throughout the United States and around the world to add a piquant va-va-voom to sauces and chutneys.

A green and purple tomatillo growing in the garden.

Beneath an intriguing, yet inedible, papery husk lies a fruit that, while mimicking the appearance of a green tomato, tastes nothing like a tomato.

Tomatillos’ flavor instead is often described as as “citrusy”, “tart,” “sour,” and “tangy.” Some compare the fruit’s taste to that of a Granny Smith apple or a green grape.

If you’ve sampled a salsa or jam containing these green wonders – or even a tomatillo mojito – you may have considered adding tomatillo (toh-mah-tee-yo) plants to your garden.

Learn how to grow and harvest delicious tomatillos at home. | Gardenerspath.com

Let’s explore the taxonomy and history of the plant, and then we’ll look at how to grow and harvest it.

The Background File

Tomatillos are part of the nightshade (Solanaceae) family, along with tomatoes and peppers. The leaves look a bit like those of eggplant, another nightshade plant. Nightshade plants are grouped together because they each produce the same particular type of flower.

The fruit’s very name is a misnomer. “Tomatillo” means “little tomato” in Spanish, and while they are distantly related, the tomatillo is very definitely not a tomato.

Nevertheless, nicknames linking the two tasty fruits abound, with the tomatillo also being referred to as “tomate verde” (green tomato) and “husk tomato.”

How to Harvest Tomatillos | GardenersPath.com

Originating in Mexico and Central America, this citrusy plant has been an important food crop for millennia, though the plant has been around for even longer. In fact, in early 2017, scientists writing for the journal “Science” reported on their discovery and analysis of a 52-million-year-old fossilized tomatillo found in the Patagonia region of Argentina.

Tomatillo plants grow wild throughout their native regions, and some wild varieties in parts of the midwestern United States, where they — despite their edibility — are derisively referred to as weeds and are considered invasive.

Historical records show that numerous North American native tribes used these wild fruits (Physalis longifolia) to treat headache and stomachache, according to the Native Medicinal Research Program at the University of Kansas.

Prized for their unusual flavor and bright green color, these tangy fruits are now cultivated and enjoyed around the world. They can be eaten raw but most commonly are cooked.

Various Varieties

Toma Verde is among the more common cultivars, producing the classic, golf ball-sized green fruit. Grande Rio Verde is another well-liked variety, producing a larger, 2-3” sweet sphere. Seeds are available from Mountain Valley Seed Co.

Papery husked tomatillos on a blonde wooden sruface.

A number of purple types also exist, including Purple Coban, Tiny from Coban, and De Milpa.

Seven green tomatillos with the husks removed.

And a special variety called Amarylla produces immature green fruit that are only ready to harvest once they turn yellow, contrary to the usual harvesting advice (see below). The Amarylla is known to do well for gardeners in northern zones.

Can I Grow My Own?

In North America, tomatillos are grown as an annual.

As their popularity spreads, seedlings are becoming more commonly available at local garden centers, though not always at big box stores. You can also mail order seeds and propagate your own.

Three tomatillos growing on a vine in a garden setting.

If you go the seed route, start them indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost is expected in your area.

An important consideration when selecting transplants or starting seeds: Because tomatillos are not self-pollinating, they must be planted in groups of at least two to ensure fruiting.

Most gardeners find 2-4 plants produce sufficient fruits for plenty of salsa verde. The plants’ bright yellow flowers will attract bees and other pollinators. You might also add nasturtiums or marigolds as companion plants that will attract pollinators.

A yellow blossom on a tomatillo vine.

Though the tomatillo is a lighter feeder than the tomato, you will nevertheless want to work about two inches of compost into the soil, maintaining a neutral pH close to 7.0. You’ll want to thoroughly aerate your soil to improve drainage, and you should grow tomatillo plants in raised beds if you have heavy clay dirt.

Like their cousin the tomato, they want lots of sun, so select an appropriately bright location. And as with tomatoes, you’ll encourage strong, healthy plants if you bury 2/3 of each transplant to enable additional root growth from the stem.

Space plants about three feet apart. These semi-determinate plants tend to sprawl — growing to be 3 to 4 feet tall and wide — so you might want to use a trellis, stake, or cage for support.

The vines prefer well-drained soil, and can even tolerate moderate drought conditions. They do best, however, with an inch or so of water per week. They certainly won’t grow well in soaking-wet ground.

Adding a 2- to 3-inch layer of organic mulch is a good idea to conserve soil moisture and suppress weeds.

The vines are well-suited for container growing. Use a 5-gallon pot for each plant. Keep an eye on soil moisture, as container dirt dries out more quickly.

Don’t Get Bugged by Bugs

It’s a good idea to plant onions nearby, to help with pest control.

Juvenille tomatillo fruit on a a vine in a garden setting.

No particular pest is unique to the tomatillo, but their leaves are susceptible to the usual suspects, such as cucumber beetles, potato beetles and other leaf-loving bugs.

Pick them off or use a natural insecticide to keep them away. You may also see aphids, which can be squirted off with a hose.

How Do I Know When They’re Ready?

The fruit is ready to pluck 75-100 days after transplanting.

Pick them when they fill out their husks and the husks just begin to split. If the fruit is still small and hard and the husk is still quite loose, it is too early to harvest.

Close up of green tomatillos on the vine.

Occasionally, the husk won’t split, but turns brown and leathery; this is also a sign that the fruit is ready to be harvested.

If the fruit turns pale yellow, you have waited too long. At this stage, the tasty interior becomes seedier and the flavor loses its distinctive tanginess.

When you’ve identified a fruit ready for harvest, it’s best to cut it from the plant, rather than pull it, which might damage the stem. Compost damaged or overripe fruits.

You can store harvested tomatillos in their husks at room temperature for up to a week or in the refrigerator either loose or in a paper bag for around three weeks. Avoid storing your harvest in plastic.

A bull full of green tomatillos with their paper husks attached.

Peel away the husk before preparing for consumption. As you peel the green orbs, they will feel sticky. Just wash the fruit to remove the tacky residue.

They can also can be frozen whole or sliced, or preserved by canning.

Easy to Grow, Delicious to Eat

Growing tomatillos is a fantastic way to add a new and unusual edible to your kitchen garden. If you’re comfortable growing tomatoes, you should have no trouble growing their green cousins.

Four green tomatillos growing on the vine in a garden setting.

Are you intrigued? Ready to introduce a new plant to your spring garden?

Create a true salsa garden by installing some tomatillo plants next to your tomatoes and peppers — your family will thank you!

Add a comment below to tell us your tale of tomatillos.


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A collage of photos showing different varieties of tomatillos growing in a garden. Close up shots.

Photo credit: Shutterstock.

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About Gretchen Heber

A former garden editor for a daily newspaper in Austin, Texas, Gretchen Heber goes through entirely too many pruners and garden gloves in a year’s time. She’s never met a succulent she didn’t like and gets really irritated every 3-4 years when Austin actually has a freeze cold enough to kill them. To Gretchen, nothing is more rewarding than a quick dash to the garden to pluck herbs to season the evening meal. And it’s definitely time for a happy dance when she’s able to beat the squirrels to the peaches, figs, or loquats.

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Jennifer
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Jennifer

Tomatillos are self fruiting. You only need one.

Hazel
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Hazel

Where can you buy the seeds for the tomatillos

Linda
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Linda

Wasn’t sure what this mystery plant was growing in my garden, so I just continued to take care of it. It is so big, top heavy, and these little bulbs are growing. Not sure what it is but just watching it, more and more bulbs are growing. My daughter and I are wondering what is this mystery plant here with our tomatoes, chilies… Hatch, Serranos, Poblanos,jalapeños – which are going very well. Well, my sister came by so I can share some of the veggies with her and I show her this plant that is just fallen over because it… Read more »

Jim C.
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Jim C.

I’ve been growing these for two seasons for salsa verde. Yes, they are a spreading plant but tomato cages help contain them. To get rid of the stickness after removing the husk, simply rub them with white vinegar. They can be made into delicious salsa verde and canned with little effort.

Dean
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Dean

They are great when quartered and put with other vegetables on the grill.

SuzAnne Maple
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SuzAnne Maple

I grew tomatillos last season and left them to die naturally over the winter. Now I have 20-30 plants in my raised beds that I didn’t plant, and they don’t look like weeds. I am wondering if the Tomatillos self-seeded? Is this possible? I am letting some of them grow to find out what they are.

Clara
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Clara

My plants are about 3 ft tall and still have no fruit. What’s wrong?

Kim
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Kim

Hi! I have two tomatillo plants that started out growing great together. They both had fruit. One started turning yellow and the leaves slowly wilted. Now it is happening to the second one. This one still has lots of fruit and I’m hoping I can save it! It almost looks like it’s not getting enough water but I water them pretty good daily. They are next to two tomatoe plants that are growing and looking awesome. Hoping you can help!!??

Donna
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Donna

I have been growing these wonderful plants for about 5 years now. I rarely have issues with them. In the St Louis area we had a lot of rain all spring and most of summer so my plants were not real happy but have bounced back beautifully. I do get volunteers every year that sometimes produce fruit if they aren’t too far away from the purposely planted ones. With the wet weather this year I have had more fruit that didn’t ripen and fell off prematurely – I guess it was just too much water. Nothing really did very well… Read more »

Nan
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Nan

I had several of these plants volunteer this summer, all over my various (zone 3) garden beds! The seeds may have been in the compost, but I don’t know how they got there! I didn’t know what they were, but was very curious, so let them be. I liked the little yellow flowers. The other day I saw a fruit husk, so figured out what the mystery plant was. I love tomatillos and had planned on planting some next spring!

Margaret
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Margaret

Can I grow them in Wisconsin?

Allison Sidhu
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Allison Sidhu

In Wisconsin, you’re probably located somewhere in USDA Hardiness Zone 3-5. Tomatillos are happiest in Zones 5 and above, and they can be grown as annuals in Zones 5-9, given the proper care. They can only be grown as perennials in hotter Zones 10-11.