Tomatillos have a distinctively tangy flavor and are a commonplace ingredient in Mexican cooking. They’re incredibly straightforward to cultivate as long as you provide the right growing conditions. In this article, discover how to grow tomatillos from seed and keep them flourishing in your garden from planting to harvest.
Growing tomatillos from seed is all about timing. They have a relatively long growing season. It takes between 75 and 100 days from planting seeds to harvest, depending on the variety. As such, growers must start seeds indoors several weeks before the last frost in most regions.
If you’ve never tried planting tomatillos from seed before, you’re in for a treat. The unique green fruit develops a papery outer husk that eventually fills up like a balloon as the tomatillo ripens. These plants are as fun to watch grow as they are satisfying to harvest. Read on to find out how to plant tomatillo seeds and care for these marvelous plants.
Best Tips for Growing Tomatillos from Seed
The best time for planting tomatillo seeds depends on your USDA planting zone. Generally speaking, sow seeds indoors six to eight weeks before the expected last frost date for your region. Grape vs cherry tomatoes and larger sizes also benefit from starting this early.
What is a tomatillo? Tomatillos, or Physalis ixocarpa by their botanical name, are annual plants native to Mexico. Also referred to as a husk tomato or Mexican green tomato, they’re closely related to the ground cherry (Physalis philadelphica) and cape gooseberry (Physalis peruviana).
Tomatillos are part of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, along with eggplants, potatoes, peppers, tobacco, and tomato plants.
A crucial consideration for growing tomatillo plants is that they’re not self-pollinating. In other words, cross-pollination between two or more plants is necessary to produce fruit. To ensure pollination, plant flowers like borage, cosmos, and marigolds near your tomatillos to attract pollinators and other beneficial insects.
How to Grow Tomatillos from Seed
Most gardeners start growing tomatillos indoors in late winter or early spring. Use a seedling tray with two-inch cells, compostable peat pots, or cardboard egg cartons to sow tomatillo seeds.
The way to plant ground cherries is to choose a seed starting mix that’s rich in nutrients and well-draining. Whether you decide on hybrid or heirloom seeds, make sure they’re from a certified organic and disease-free source.
Plant your tomatillo seeds a quarter-inch deep and cover them lightly with soil. It’s helpful to pre-saturate the soil to avoid disturbing the seeds. Cover the seedling tray with a humidity dome or plastic wrap to conserve moisture.
The optimal soil temperature for germinating tomatillo seeds is 75-85℉. Germination usually takes a week or two and is slower in cold soil.
Air temperature is usually higher than soil temperature. Using a heat mat is beneficial for keeping the soil consistently warm while the seeds germinate and the seedlings develop.
After your tomatillo seedlings sprout, move the tray to a sunny windowsill with at least six hours of bright light daily. Rotate the tray regularly so the seedlings lean in different directions to encourage strong stems. If you don’t have a sunny location, use grow lights to keep the seedlings from becoming elongated or “leggy.”
When to Plant Tomatillo Seed
Plant tomatillo seeds about six to eight weeks before your area’s average last spring frost. The same applies to tomatoes. Growers and cooks often use green tomatoes as a tomatillo substitute.
It’s vital to harden off the tender seedlings before transplanting them outdoors after the last danger of frost passes.
Over one or two weeks, set the plants outdoors when conditions are warm and mild. Leave them out for progressively more extended periods so they slowly adapt to the harsh realities of the outside world. Otherwise, they might become stunted or die from transplant shock.
Growing Conditions for Tomatillo Plants
Select a location for your tomatillo plants that gets six or more hours of direct sunlight daily. Where to plant ground cherries and tomatillos is in moist, fertile soil, and they require about an inch of water per week. Apply mulch around the base of the plants to retain moisture, insulate the ground, and minimize weed growth.
Tomatillos have a sprawling growth habit, reaching 18-36 inches tall and 18-24 inches wide. Since tomatillos and cherry tomatoes need space to grow, spacing between plants should be at least three feet to avoid overcrowding and provide adequate air circulation. Provide support with tomato cages or a trellis to keep the branches off the ground.
Like most other fruiting plants, tomatillos are heavy feeders and benefit from regular fertilizer applications. Plant fertilizer has three dominant macronutrients: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K).
Nitrogen supports green leafy growth, phosphorus encourages robust root systems, and potassium stimulates fruiting and flowering.
Use an organic, all-purpose fertilizer every three to four weeks until the plants begin flowering, then switch to a fertilizer with higher levels of potassium.
How to Plant Tomatillo Seeds in Containers
It’s okay if you don’t have space for a veggie garden at home. Tomatillos are also easy to grow in a pot. Growing ground cherries in pots is simple too. Use a container that holds at least five gallons of soil and has drainage holes at the bottom. To ensure that your harvest is ready in time, it’s still a good idea to start tomatillo seeds indoors in advance of the last spring frost date.
When considering how to plant tomatillo seeds in a pot, it’s not much different than growing them in the garden. Container-grown plants tend to go through water and fertilizer more quickly than in-ground plantings, so you may need to water and feed them more often.
Container gardening reduces the risk of pest and disease problems. However, it’s still essential to closely monitor your plants for aphids, spider mites, thrips, and other insect pests. Ensure air circulation and avoid overwatering to prevent problems with fungal disease and root rot.
Harvesting and Storing Tomatillos
Ripe tomatillos look like a green tomato in a papery husk. When they’re ready to harvest, the ripe fruit fills the husk, which may begin to split open.
One of the best parts of home gardening is planting unusual varieties that aren’t available at the grocery store. In addition to the standard green tomatillo varieties such as Gigante and Toma Verde, try growing purple tomatillos like Coban or De Milpa.
Harvesting tomatillos is simple. They often come right off the stem and fall to the ground once ripe. Store your homegrown tomatillos with their husks still on. Place them in a paper bag in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator.
Fresh tomatillos typically last for around two to three weeks. Freezing is an excellent way to extend their shelf life. Or, whip up a batch of fresh tomatillo salsa verde.
Preheat your conventional oven to 450℉. Remove the outer husks from the tomatillos and rinse them. Slice the tomatillos in half and arrange them on a large baking tray lined with aluminum foil along with the whole garlic cloves. Broil them for five to seven minutes or until the tomatillo skins are lightly blackened.
For less heat, remove the seeds from the chili peppers. Add the salsa ingredients to a food processor or blender and purée until smooth. Season to taste with salt. Keep your salsa verde refrigerated in an airtight container and consume it within one week.
Growing tomatillos from seed at home is incredibly easy and rewarding. As long as you plant them in full sun and rich soil, you’ll enjoy a bountiful harvest of fresh tomatillos at the end of the growing season.
Plant aromatic herbs and flowers nearby to attract pollinators. Once harvest time arrives, use your homegrown tomatillos for making green chili, salsa, and more.
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