By Wendy Diaz, Durham Master Gardener Volunteer
I would like to share with you my experience growing my first tomatillo plant and perhaps inspire you to do the same next summer. My interest in growing tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa) started with a recipe–to be more specific, a delicious salsa verde recipe, which my family loves to eat and I like to prepare because it is easy and its lime-green color is very appealing. For a long time now, I have thought about growing tomatillos in my very small vegetable garden but it wasn’t until I saw them growing in the terraced kitchen garden at Snowbird Mountain Lodge, which we were staying at in Haywood County last summer, did I consider that I could actually be successful growing these native plants from Mexico. A late spring and a busy schedule postponed my vegetable garden planning until the end of April this year so it was a serendipitous encounter when I walked past tomatillo seedling plants on a farmer’s table at the Durham Farmers Market one Saturday morning in late April-a small detour from our weekly bike ride on the American Tobacco Trail. This gave me the motivational push I needed so I purchased two plants and transported then back home in my bicycle basket.
I planted each tomatillo plant deep in fertile soil, rich in compost, in a different yard location because I do not have a lot of areas that get full sun (minimum 6 hours of sun per day). Unfortunately, a tree fell on one plant but the other tomatillo plant thrived. Its tangled arms branched out and spread over the summer to an area of about 5 feet in width and 3.5 feet in height. The yellow blossoms turned into round papery husks or calyxes that eventually filled up with round hard green fruit. Tomatillos are also known as ‘husk tomatoes’. It takes about 90 days to reach maturity from seed1. They started to appear about two weeks after I picked my first tomato. The small fruit dangled and looked like small-green round Japanese lanterns. They are ready to pick when they reach the size of a walnut but do not husk them until you are ready to prepare them for food. For salsa the tomatillos are picked green and are not allowed to ripen.
I staked the vines so the fruit did not lie on the ground and placed a fence around it because we have lots of rabbits, deer and squirrels in our treed backyard. The leaves became spotted with tiny holes probably from flea beetles but nevertheless the plant put on lots of fruit and enough to make over 6 batches of fresh salsa and close to 100 tomatillos. The damage appeared to be aesthetic only.
Long after I pulled up my tired tomato plants I was harvesting tomatillos in October and early November, however, my last harvest yielded rather small tomatillos probably because of the lower sun angle in the fall resulting in less sun exposure due to the house shadow. Many of the leaves dropped from the plant by November 5, 2015. Overall the tomatillo was a low maintenance very productive vegetable that proved rewarding to grow. We enjoyed the delicious salsa verde cruda several times this fall and it reminded us of summer. Not that you need another reason to grow tomatillos but they are nutritious too! They are high in fiber, Vitamin C and K and Niacin.
The tomatillo is a member of the nightshade (Solanaceae) family and thus a relative to the tomato so don’t plant a Solanaceae crop in the garden location where it was grown in the last three years2. Next summer, I know just the spot, along the south side of the house where the tree fell down. Maybe I will remember to start from seed next spring. (Sow seeds directly in fertile soil about 4 weeks after last frost when soil is warm. Seeds will germinate in about 5 days. Tomatillos use cross-pollination so it is best to use at least 2 plants.)
1. The Southern Living Garden Book, edited by Steve Bender, Oxmoor House, 2004
Salsa Verde Cruda
(from the Joy of Cooking; page 62, Rombauer, I.S.; Becker, M.R., Becker, E., Scribner, 1997)
- 8 ounces tomatillos, husked, rinsed and coarsely chopped
- 1 small white onion, coarsely chopped
- 3 to 5 fresh chili peppers, seeded and coarsely chopped
(I prefer Serrano but jalapenos are good too.)
- 1 clove garlic, peeled (optional)
- 3 to 4 tablespoons fresh cilantro sprigs
- 1 teaspoon of salt, or to taste
- ¾ teaspoon sugar, (optional) (I do not bother adding sugar)
Combine in a food processor or blender and coarsely puree, leaving the mixture a little chunky. Remove to a medium bowl and stir in enough cold water to loosen the mixture to a sauce-like consistency (I use juice from one half of freshly squeezed lime.) Stir in the salt to taste and sugar if desired. Serve immediately with chips, fish, chicken, vegetables or eggs. If left to sit, the raw onion will overpower the sauce.