By SCMG Jerilynn Jenderseck
If you are feeling adventurous this year, perhaps it’s time to try the tomatillo (toh-m uh-TEE-oh), the green tomato in a husk. No, it’s not the green tomato that you fry. It’s the one used in Mexican cooking. The tomatillo (Physalis ixocarpa) is a relative of the tomato: both are members of the nightshade (Solanaceae) family. The fruit, when hanging on the plant, is often described as looking like Chinese lanterns. Not only can the fruit can be eaten, in its husk it can be used as decoration. How versatile!
Like tomatoes, tomatillos are a warm season crop. They can be started from seed indoors or from a start which can be transplanted when the chance of freeze has passed…usually in May in Sonoma County. It takes 90 to 100 days from germination to harvest. Buy transplants if you didn’t start seed indoors in March or early April. When selecting your planting site, make sure that your tomatillos will receive six to eight hours of sunlight a day. They are very frost tender! In cooler microclimates consider planting tomatillos near the house or a wall facing west or south. The structure will heat up during the day and release its heat in the evening, keeping the plant warm for a longer period of time. By the way, tomatillos grow well in containers which are fairly easy to move around.
Tomatillos are self-infertile but are open-pollinators. For my first venture growing Tomatillos, I decided to only plant one plant. It produced very few tomatillos and I didn’t know why. Another gardener in Sebastopol used to plant several tomatillos together and harvested more tomatillos than he could use. Last year, he rotated his tomato beds and only planted one tomatillo. Guess
what…he had a very small harvest. Bees can carry the pollen giving you at least a few tomatillos on a single plant. But, for a good-sized crop, plant two or more together.
Like tomatoes, tomatillos need regular water –one inch of water per week in most of Sonoma County. In warmer microclimates the plants may require two inches per week. Mulching your tomatillos will help retain moisture. As with tomatoes, once the fruit has set, you can cut back on water. If you are growing tomatillos in a container, they will need to be watered more often than those in the garden. Feed your plants regularly with a fertilizer high in potassium and phosphorus to help the fruit set.
Tomatillos grow three to four feet. Stake your tomatillos to keep the fruit off the ground. Tomatillos are susceptible to the same insects that plague tomatoes: aphids, cucumber beetles, potato beetles and other leaf-loving bugs. The University of California Integrated Pest Management site provides strategies to deal with these pests. Use drip irrigation or, if hand-watering, keep the leaves dry while watering to avoid powdery mildew.
Tomatillos are usually green. If you are interested in the more exotic red/purple varieties, you will need to grow your own from seed – a project for next year. The husk is often a good indicator of when the fruit is ripe. Harvest tomatillos that are firm and have a light-brown husk that is mostly tight-fitting (“full”). Full-grown fruit is often only the size of a golf ball but may be even smaller – the size of a cherry tomato. If you peel back a small part of the husk, the fruit should be fairly free of blemishes. Yellowing fruit is past its ideal ripeness stage. Select green tomatillos for a balanced, slightly acidic taste. Smaller fruit is often sweeter.
Fresh tomatillo can be stored in a paper sack in the refrigerator with the husk still intact for three weeks to a month. To keep tomatillos longer, remove the husk, wash the fruit and freeze them. Be aware that the tomatillo inside the husk is quite sticky – just wash it with mild soapy water.
Tomatillos may be used raw in salsas, guacamoles and salads or diced and cooked in sauces, moles or stews. Cooking enhances the flavor and softens the skin, but the fruit collapses after a few minutes of cooking and becomes a soupy consistency. If you are grilling the fruit, get the grill quite hot first so that the fruit will blacken before it gets too mushy. The blackening provides a smoky flavor in whatever dish you use the tomatillo. I really enjoy the flavor of tomatillos. So, I will certainly be planting tomatillos again…but, two or three of them next time.