Tomatillos are a fantastic addition to any garden, but since they are always green, it can be tricky to determine when to pick them. Tomatillos are still somewhat the new kid on the block in the world of vegetable gardening, and many people are confused about what they are, how to tell if a tomatillo is ripe, how to harvest them, and whether you can eat them raw or not.
Well, here’s our best advice!
You’ll know when to pick tomatillos by how they look and feel. As these little green fruits ripen, they will expand, ripping their husks and growing too heavy for their stems.
If you’ve decided to try growing tomatillos in your garden for the first time, we’ve got everything you need to know. We’ll teach you what tomatillos are, how to grow them, when to pick them, how to use them, and much more. So, let’s get into it!
- What Are Tomatillos?
- When to Harvest Tomatillos
- How To Use Tomatillos
- How to Pick Tomatillos – FAQs
- Final Thoughts on Growing and Harvesting Tomatillos
What Are Tomatillos?
Tomatillos (Physalis pruinosa), also known as Mexican ground cherries, are a type of fruit that belongs to the nightshade family, alongside potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers. The plant looks similar to a tomato plant, and the fruits are similar in shape to tomatoes.
However, a fibrous husk encloses the fruits, keeping them safe from pests. This husk has a beautiful lantern-like appearance.
There are both green varieties and purple varieties of tomatillos, but they both taste the same.
The name tomatillo may mean baby tomato, but you’d be mistaken to think of these fruits as similar to tomatoes. The flesh of tomatillos is firm and dense, with a bright, tangy flavor. You can also eat tomatillo fruits raw, but they are more commonly cooked to draw out their sweeter notes.
How To Grow Tomatillos: A Tomatillo Care Guide
Tomatillos are some of the easiest plants to care for, which makes them an excellent low-maintenance addition to any garden. However, the more you pamper your tomatillo plant, the bigger your harvests will be. So, let’s talk a little bit about how to keep your tomatillo healthy, happy, and ultra-productive.
Here’s a basic care guide to help you make your tomatillo plant more productive:
- Soil: Tomatillos need well-drained soil to thrive. They do very well in raised beds and containers since these spots generally have great drainage. However, if you plant tomatillos in the ground, be sure to break up the soil to increase drainage. If your soil is clay-heavy, add some sand to keep water from hanging around too long.
- Water: These plants don’t need too much water to produce a big crop since they grow very deep roots. The agricultural experts at the University of Minnesota advise that a tomatillo plant only needs one inch of water per week. So, be cautious not to overwater, and just keep the soil as consistently moist as possible. Some organic mulch can help you keep the soil moist for longer.
- Fertilizer: Tomatillos do best with a perfectly balanced fertilizer. High-quality compost is the best for these plants. However, only fertilize around once a year in the spring season. Tomatillos generally get bushy and bear less fruit when they have too much nitrogen.
- Space: Since tomatillos grow very deep roots, they need plenty of room to grow. You should space plants at least three feet away from your tomatillo to let it get as big and hardy as possible.
- Pollination: Tomatillos have both male and female parts in every flower, but they are notoriously difficult pollinators. For that reason, if you want as many tomatillos as you can get from your plant, it’s best to plant two tomatillo plants in early springtime. That way, your garden bees, butterflies, and other pollinators will have plenty of time and opportunities to fertilize the blooms.
When to Harvest Tomatillos
Since tomatillos always stay the same color, it can be tricky to tell when your tomatillos are ripe. However, there’s a trick to it – one that we would love to share with you!
How to Tell if a Tomatillo Is Ripe
Choosing when to pick tomatillos is a fine art – too soon, and they’ll not be fully ripe. But leave them too long, and they will start falling off the plant! On top of that, it can be pretty tricky to tell when tomatillos are ripe since they don’t change color.
These plants mature with surprising haste. And you can expect to start harvesting your first tomatillos in just 75 to 100 days, or around three months, after planting.
Unfortunately, unlike tomatoes, there is no clear-cut color change to look for when harvesting tomatillos. Instead, selecting perfectly ripe fruits is done by feeling, giving each fruit a gentle squeeze to see how firm it is inside the husk.
You can tell if a tomatillo is ripe if the fruit has become so large that the papery husk around it has split. When you touch a ripe tomatillo on the stem, the green fruit should fall off in your hand with just a tiny amount of pressure.
Think of it like a balloon inflating inside a paper bag – when it gets to the point that the bag is going to split, it is ready to harvest!
How to Pick Tomatillos
Once you’ve decided that your tomatillos are ready to harvest, it is time to start taking them off the plant.
To pick tomatillos, give the green fruits a gentle twist, and they should fall right off if they are ripe. The fruit is likely not yet ripe if it does not fall off. Pick all the ripe fruits you can find, but discard any that have signs of mold, disease, or insect damage.
The very ripest fruit will fall off the plant with gentle pressure, but slightly underripe ones will need cutting from the plant with a pair of garden scissors. Don’t be tempted to pull them off, as you risk damaging the plant’s stem.
Can You Eat Tomatillos Before They Are Ripe?
While you can eat raw tomatillos before they are ripe, you probably shouldn’t. Underripe tomatillos may contain some amount of solanine, a toxic chemical that occurs in all nightshade plants, including tomatoes and potatoes. This chemical breaks down as the fruits ripen.
We’ve heard many gardeners and reliable researchers argue about this topic, so we generally urge caution. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
While eating immature tomatillos is not a great idea, you can probably eat them when they are slightly underripe. They will have a sharper and more tart flavor, but you can still use them to make salsa and green tomatillo chutney.
We also read from a reliable source that many recipes call for underripe tomatillos. Go figure!
Before researching when to pick tomatillos - you need to have the best tomatillos possible! We love this heirloom survival Toma Verde tomatillo seed packet for easy germination - and harvests! Toma Verda tomatillos have a tart, zesty, and tangy flavor when fresh.
Or - you roast them for a deeper flavor. The Toma Verde cultivar is also famous for adaptability and quick maturing. They prefer soil temperatures of around 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The seeds also come from the USA - and are heirloom, non-GMO.
Are Unripe Tomatillos Poisonous?
Unripe tomatillos are mildly poisonous. Unripe tomatillos contain elevated levels of the naturally-occurring toxic substance solanine, which can cause unpleasant gastrointestinal and neurological symptoms. Solanine is not only toxic. It will also make the tomatillo taste bitter and unpleasant.
One unripe tomatillo may not contain enough solanine for you to notice any side effects, but then again, it might. Each fruit will have a different amount of solanine, which will change daily, slowly decreasing over time. So, it’s better just to be patient with your tomatillos and learn how to tell if a tomatillo is ripe.
We read from a reliable source that all parts of the tomatillo plant contain solanine except the (ripened) fruit. That includes the leaves, stems, and flowers.
Solanine is the primary culprit – as is with most nightshades. So, while you can eat raw tomatillos once ripe, never eat the other parts of the plant!
How to Store Tomatillos After Harvesting Them
It’s best to store tomatillos in their papery shells, which work like containers to keep them pathogen-free. When kept in the fridge, they should stay fresh for two to three weeks, but if your fridge is nice and cold, they may last upwards of a month.
However, when the time comes to eat them, you should peel the husk away. The fruit will have a tacky residue on the surface – rinse this sticky film off with warm water.
Your tomatillo harvest is now ready for you to eat! Either raw or cooked. Bon appetit!
How To Use Tomatillos
You can use tomatillos in salsa, chili sauce, soup, or salad topping. Tomatillos are also great as pickles or garnish on top of any meats. As an ingredient in savory dishes, they taste citrusy and zesty, making them a great palate cleanser.
Tomatillos are the green part of salsa verde, so they are a delicious salsa ingredient.
One of our favorite ways to eat tomatillos is to oven-roast them. All you need to do is put them in the oven at around 410° F and cook them for about 8 minutes. After that, they should prune up a bit.
Once you roast them, they become pretty soft, which makes it easy to chop them up for salsa, relish, and garnish. They also taste great pureed in meat marinades and sauces like chili sauce.
However, I love to scoop out the insides and stuff them with minced mushrooms and mild queso for a scrumptious snack or side dish.
Can You Eat Tomatillos Raw?
You can eat tomatillos raw as long as they are ripe. Raw tomatillos have a zesty, sour, citrusy flavor that can add a lot of complexity to any recipe. However, cooking them brings out their sweetness and enhances their flavor big time.
While there is some debate on whether you can eat raw tomatillos or not, we believe that ripe tomatillos are perfectly safe to eat raw.
Still, raw tomatillos have a slightly sour flavor that puts many people off. Therefore, you might want to consider cooking up the fruit before eating it.
How to Pick Tomatillos – FAQs
Now we’ve got your tomatillo basics all sorted out! So – let’s look at other intriguing questions about growing and harvesting these unusual fruits!
Harvesting tomatillos at precisely the right time can be a tricky business! For the best flavor, you should only harvest a tomatillo when the fruit is fully developed. To tell if your tomatillo is ripe, check if the fruit is filling the papery husk. The tomatillo should be fully ripe if the husk is full or has split.
When ready to harvest, a tomatillo will feel firm and tightly encased within the outer husk. In addition, you might see splits in the husk, which is how you can tell if the tomatillo is ripe. Ripe tomatillos also fall off the stem with just a little pressure.
Most people grow tomatillos as annual plants as they are not frost-hardy and will get killed by cold winter temperatures. However, if you live in zones 10 and 11, it is possible to overwinter the plants to give a head start on cropping the following year.
If you follow a companion planting method, tomatillos should not get planted with corn, dill, eggplant, fennel, kohlrabi, or potatoes. Good companions for tomatillos include basil, marigolds, nasturtiums, parsley, peas, and bell peppers.
Read More – How Long Do Tomatoes Take to Grow?
Final Thoughts on Growing and Harvesting Tomatillos
Tomatillos are the most underrated member of the nightshade family!
And – we love cooking them! They help enhance nearly any homemade taco, enchilada, salsa, chili, or fresh and zesty garden salad. Don’t forget sour cream – and guacamole!
Do you have more questions about when to pick tomatillos, or do you perhaps have a savory tomatillo recipe to share? Please let us know in the comments below!
Thanks again for reading.
And – have a great day!