Growing Tomatillos

growing tomatillo in the garden

image source: iStock.com

Tomatillo plants develop a fruit like a tomato that is covered in a papery husk.

Tomatillo, sometimes called husk tomato, grows within a papery husk. When the fruit is ripe, it will fill up the husk.

Tomatillos are the odd-looking distant cousins of the beloved tomato. Native to central America, they can be found growing wild in fields of corn and beans, and they are gathered to be eaten or sold in local markets. As with any abundant produce, the local cuisine has come to rely on its distinctive qualities. To prepare many Mexican food favorites, you need to be growing tomatillos in your garden.

The name and the requirements for growing tomatoes and tomatillos are similar, but the comparison really stops there. The appearance of a tomatillo (pronounced to-ma-TEE-yo) with its papery husk is quite different. In fact, it is also known as a husk tomato, due to the dry cover that surrounds the fruit.

Soil, Planting, and Care

Tomatillo flowers are pollinated by bees. Plant two plants for cross-pollination.

Tomatillo plants require cross-pollination, so you must plant at least two plants. Bees and other pollinators will be attracted to your tomatillo plants’ yellow blossoms.

Tomatillos grow in the summer garden just like their relatives: tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers. In fact, the leaves look a little like the foliage of eggplant, but the fruit is like no other.

You will need two or more tomatillo plants for the blooms to be pollinated and fruit to be produced. Plan for each plant to produce about a pound of fruit over the season. However, most recipes call for ½ pound to make sauce, so plan to grow a minimum of 2 to 3 plants to have enough fruit ready to eat at one time. You may need more if you like them a lot.

Set plants in the garden in spring after all danger of frost has passed and the soil has begun to warm. Choose a sunny location, and enrich the soil with compost. You can set plants deep like you would a tomato, burying nearly 2/3 of the plant. Space plants about 3 feet apart with a trellis or cage to support them as they grow. Treat tomatillos as you would tomatoes, keeping the soil evenly moist. Mulch will help conserve moisture while keeping down weeds.

Troubleshooting

If allowed to sprawl on the ground, the stems will root and the plants will require more space than you may have anticipated, so be sure to use se a trellis or tomato cage. Also, getting them off the ground enhances air circulation and discourages fungus problems on the foliage during periods of high humidity.

Because of the husks, birds rarely reach the fruit. Besides, birds tend to wait until fruit is soft and sweet, which tomatillos are not. Flea beetles chewing holes in the leaves can be a problem, but plants are usually vigorous enough that the damage is merely cosmetic.

Harvest and Storage

When a tomatillo fruit is ripe, it will be bright green. A yellow tomatillo is past its prime.

The bright green color indicates that the tomatillo on the right is ripe. The one on the left is overripe and turning yellow because it was left too long on the plant.

You know a tomatillo is ready to be cut from the plant when the fruit is green, but has filled out the husk. Left to ripen further, the fruit will frequently split the husk and turn yellow or purple depending on its genetics. However, these are not as good for cooking, as they lack the firm flesh and tart flavor of the green tomatillos. They are almost always used green, but don’t try to substitute a green tomato. A tomatillo is less juicy and more richly flavored than its popular cousin.

Store tomatillos in their husks for 2 to 3 weeks in a paper bag in the vegetable bin of the refrigerator. Tomatillos can be frozen by peeling the husk, rinsing and drying the fruit, and placing them whole in freezer bags. Double bagging is a good idea to prevent freezer burn.

Uses

Although it may appear unfamiliar to some, the tomatillo is enjoyed regularly by fans of Mexican food. Some with Mexican or Guatemalan heritage call it miltomate. In both cultures, this green fruit is the base ingredient in sauces such as salsa verde, where it is combined with peppers and other seasonings. Although tomatillo literally means “little tomato,” you cannot get the same results using green tomatoes. You really need tomatillos to give these dishes authentic flavor.

44 Comments

Doug Wilders

Thanks for the update on the arrival of the tomatillos. In the ground and blooming. One question on a summerset tomatoes. The bush has 40 fruit on it. Should I remove some of them, to help the others mature? Thank you’ Doug

Danielle Carroll

Hi Doug,
Wow, that is a lot of fruit. The short answer is…you can let the tomatoes mature as is, but they may not get as large as they would if you thinned the tomato fruit. The decision for you is…more, smaller tomatoes OR fewer, larger tomatoes. -danielle, Bonnie Plants

Marck

Hi im growing mine now, all bonnies. I used a kellogg brand fertilizer 4-6-3. Is that ok? But for some odd reason, and it could be the funny california weather, the leaves are always wilted, and turning light green. They are getting an average of 5/6 hours sun, watered every 2-3 days. Anyway you can help would be most appreciated. Thanks.

Danielle Carroll

Hello Marck,
You are fertilizing great – just follow the ferilizer application directions as recommended on the package. Tomatillos are in the same family as tomatoes and share the same requirements. This is a publication from the Univeristy of California on growing tomatillos in your area. When you water, check the soil to see if it is moist about 6 inches deep. Water requirements increase above the standard inch of water per week in well draining soils (like sand) and warmer temperatures. – danielle, Bonnie Plants

Eliza

We have two tomatilla plants – one green and one purple. Will they cross-pollinate? or should we have gotten two of each kind?

Danielle Carroll

Hi Eliza,
That will do it! – danielle, Bonnie Plants

Peter

How close together do the two tomatillo plants need to be in order to pollinate each other? Due to the layout of my garden, I’d like to plant them about 20 feet apart. Will this work?

Danielle Carroll

Hi Peter,
That will work just fine. – Danielle, Bonnie Plants

Mary

I have tomatillo plants in my garden but they are not doing well as a bug that is resistant to everything I use is killing them, it is a black bug with red markings on them. Is there anything else I can try to get rid of those pests?

Danielle Carroll

Hi Mary,
Let’s see if we can figure out what type of insect you are dealing with. This is a guide to some vegetable insects from the Univeristy of Florida as well as control measures in the home garden. You will see one black stink bug with red markings on the back. You do not say whether the insect is a flying insect affecting fruit or a leaf feeding insect. Hopefully the insect identification publication will help. – Danielle, Bonnie Plants

Anna

Hi, I grew a fantastic crop of tomatillos this year in southern New Zealand. We do get moderate to heavy frosts here in winter. As tomatillos are related to Cape Goosberries, I was wondering if I should leave the plants in over winter (like you would for Cape Goosberries) in the hope they’ll come back next spring? Or are they an annual crop, and should I pull them out after harvest and start with fresh seedlings in spring, like tomatoes? Any ideas would be great! Thanks

Danielle Carroll

Hi Anna,
Grow them like your tomatoes! – Danielle, Bonnie Plants

Janelle

Every year we fully rototill our garden. Do we still need to rotate plant locations each year? Can I plant my tomatillos this year where I planted my tomatoes last year? Thank you!

Mary Beth

Hi Janelle, Thanks for writing. It’s a good idea to rotate placement of the plants so that they are not in the same area for three years. Tomatillos and tomatoes are related, as are peppers and eggplants, so all of these in the same family need to be fully rotated with other types of crops. It’s best for avoiding diseases or pests found in the soil. ~Mary Beth, Bonnie Plants

Bonnie Bachand

Can I use tomato starter soil (like Burpee’s) when replanting the seedlings into a larger container?

Danielle Carroll

You sure can, Bonnie. – Danielle, Bonnie Plants

Laney

Will the other plants in my garden change the taste of my tomatillos? I am worried about the roses and peppers in my yard affecting the flavor of the tomatillo fruit.

Danielle Carroll

Hello Laney,
The other plants in your garden should not affect the taste of your tomatillos.
-Danielle, Bonnie Plants

Andrea

Hi I’ve always loved Mexican good but I live in germany now so I have tomatillo seeds and a few fresh tomatillos i brought in my lunch from home. Thing is I live in an apartment with plenty of sun but we don’t really have a balcony. I can keep them near sun but not sure ill end up having a place to plant them later so I wanna keep them inside the house. What’s the best way to do this? Hanging? I need two hanging plants I guess bevause I want them to pollinate each other? It’s march already so I wanna get going on this ASAP :) thanks!

Danielle Carroll

Hi Andrea,
Keeping them productive inside the house may be a hard task. Tomatillos grow best with at least 8 hours of uninterrupted sunlight per day. Growing indoors will take additional lighting to encourage the plants to grow. These plants do produce more if cross-pollinated. Bees and other pollinators will be attracted to your tomatillo plants’ yellow blossoms. You may be able to hand pollinate or simulate wind – but one tomatillo plant will yield fruit. A tomatillo is a large plant – 3 – 4 feet high and wide. A container that holds 5 gallons of soil ( or is 18 – 24 inches in diamter) – is needed for root growth. This is a an extension article on growing vegetables indoors that may answer more of your questions. I wish you luck, Mexican is one of my favorites!
-Danielle, Bonnie Plants

Cyndy M.

Have 3 potted tomatillo plants that are all doing great. Two were together on the deck all summer; the other one was several feet away but the bees were all over all the plants on the deck; all 3 are now next to each other and there is fruit inside but it is small yet. In New England it is starting to get quite cool at night and don’t think the fruit will grow big enough to harvest before our frost (probably in a week or two; we had one so far but the plants got covered and are fine). Any knowledge of them finishing in the house? Still lots of blooms and I can find a reasonably sunny spot to put them. Thanks for any help. :)

Kelly Smith Trimble

Hi Cyndy,

I don’t have experience with growing tomatillo or bringing it indoors, but my inclination is that it won’t grow well or ripen indoors because it prefers warm weather and full sun. You could try covering the plants with row cover cloth during the cool nights to keep the plants warm, and that might help pull the plants through until frost. I hope this helps!

Kelly, Bonnie Plants

amy

We moved to NM this summer. when I started watering the “Secret Garden” flowers and bushes emerged. Yesterday I noticed 3 plants that look like tomitillo bushes and have the hanging lantern like fruit. Do you think I’ve hit a jackpot? Are Tomitillos native to New Mexico?

Mary Beth

Hi Amy,
I hope they become what you wish! We have no way of knowing what they are without seeing them, too, but you can always send a photo to via email to our Ask An Expert service. Tomato, tomatillo and ground cherries may all look similar to you in various forms of foliage or fruit. Keep an eye on it and send a photo when it blooms and try to get as much detail of the leaves as you can. Good luck! ~Mary Beth, Bonnie Plants

Noahsalsaverde

I live in so. cal in an area thats usually free of frost. Its September and Im putting in a pepper garden where I want to grow tomatillos. (for salsa verde) It does get cold at night, but Ive never seen any frost. Would it be a worth while endeavor to try and grow some tomatillos?

Mary Beth

Hi Noah,
Lucky you! Sounds like you can grow lots of veggies year-round. As for tomatillos, they love hot weather and prefer night time temperatures above 55 degrees to flourish. Anything less than that will stunt its growth or cause problems with setting blossoms. If you know that your area has evenings warmer than that, you could give it a try. You might also be interested in this document on tomatillo production in California for detailed information. Let us know how it grows! ~Mary Beth, Bonnie Plants

Debbie

This is my first year growing a tomatillo plant and I love it. It has grown gigantic. I didn’t know till I read the comments on your website that you were to plant 2plants for pollination. I only planted one and I have tons of tomatillos growing. I’ve already eaten one, though I think it was a bit to early. Anyway I dont know why but I did fine with only 1 plant.

Ethelbaby

Hello, I just was wondering if you knew why my tomatillo fruit is not getting big? I have 5 plants and all of them are covered in fruit but they are tiny inside. The outside husks are big but the fruit itself is small. I made a batch of salsa and it was good but was wondering if you have any suggestions so I can use less fruit and more stuff? Thank you

Mary Beth

Hello! I’ve experienced that with my own this summer, too. High temperatures during flowering can result in poor fruit set. Wait to pick until the fruit is as large as the husk or when it grows large enough to split the husk. As you have read, earlier-picked tomatillos are light green and tart, later-picked ones are more yellowish-green and sweeter, about 2 inches in diameter. Hopefully your plant will get back to normal if the temps regulate? Let us know how it grows. ~Mary Beth, Bonnie Plants

Gary Beckham

I planted 3 tomatillo plants in early spring. They are huge, healthy, and loaded with flowers and bees. BUT no fruit yet. Is it possible I got 3 male/female plants?

Kelly Smith Trimble

Hi Gary,

No, tomatillos have both male and female flowers on the same plant. You can pollinate them by hand, if you think you need to, by using your finger or a paintbrush to brush from flower to flower. Your problems with fruit are likely due to high temperatures during flowering, though. Fruiting continues until frost, so you should still get a good crop when it cools off. Happy growing!

Kelly, Bonnie Plants

Bubs

How do you self pollinate tomatillo plants? Specifically, how do I know what is female and what is male? I’m growing indoors so I will have to self pollinate if I want any fruits. Thanks

Mary Beth

Hi Bubs,
Do you have more than two tomatillo plants? That is necessary for pollination and forming of fruit. However, that is assuming there are insects to pollinate the plants, which you will not experience indoors. My research has not shown any verified information for hand-pollinating tomatillos but in theory, it should work with using a paintbrush or Q-tip to gather pollen from blooms of one plant to mix upon blooms of the other plant. We have a reader on this page who has had great success spreading pollen from one plant to another. Given how prolific tomatillos *could* be, I think this proves a tedious task. But then, fresh tomatillos are worth it! Let us know how it grows. Mary Beth, Bonnie Plants

Bubs

Hi Mary,

I have 3 plants and only 1 of them is flowering. The other plants look like they are a week away from flowering. My question is how do I know which flowers are male and which are female? Is there any more information available on hand pollination? Thanks

Mary Beth

Have they all begun flowering now? The flowers are not distinguished male vs female; you simply need to pollinate from one flower on one plant to another flower on a separate plant. They are not like cucurbits (cucumbers, squash, melons) where you swap pollen from a male to a female flower. Someone on this page had success with simply using a paint brush to spread pollen from one plant to another; try it and see what happens. ~Mary Beth, Bonnie Plants

robin

i have three tomatillo plants, all growing in one container, they are all doing fine with many of the leafy bulb type things and fairly large green tomatillos. when do you pick them, does the covering develpe and stay or does it go away. what should they look like to harvest.

Kelly Smith Trimble

Hi Robin,

I’m so glad to hear about your success with tomatillo plants in containers. Click above on the “Harvest and Storage” tab for info on when and how to pick your tomatillos. Happy growing!

Kelly, Bonnie Plants

Olimpia

One of my three tomatillo plants wilted and is about dead. The other two look fine with many flowers but no husks so far. All three were purchased at same Bonnie retail location and the one that is dying was actually growing better that the two left, I’m disappointed and don’t really know what went wrong with this plant. They leaves begand by curling upward and turned yellow, then the plant seemed to have lost strength.
They’ve been in the garden since early May, so almost 60 days, how long until I see growth in the lantern-husks or anything!?

Kelly Smith Trimble

Hi Olimpia,

It sounds like the plant received too much water. Stress on a plant causes leaf curl and yellowing is a sign of a nitrogen deficiency, which is usually caused by the nitrogen being leached out of the soil from overwatering. Could it be that the drainage around this one plant is not as good as the other too or that water puddles around it? A liquid fertilizer specifically for vegetables, such as our Bonnie Herb & Vegetable Plant Food, should help. Use at the rate and frequency listed on the label. Tomatilloes mature in 60 to 75 days after transplant, so if pollination is good, you should see husks soon, and you’ll be making salsa verde in no time! Happy growing!

Kelly, Bonnie Plants

tony eames

Can i self pollinate a tomatillo if i only have one or would they cross pollinate in a greenhouse with tomato’s.

Kelly Smith Trimble

Hi Tony,

Tomatillos are capable of producing fruit with one plant, usually later in the season, but more fruit will be produced with two plants. You can pollinate them by hand, if you think you need to, by using your finger to brush from flower to flower. If they were to cross pollinate with the tomatoes (which I don’t think they will) it would not affect this year’s fruit. Cross pollination would only affect the plants next year if you saved the seeds and tried to grow tomatillos from them. Happy growing!

Kelly, Bonnie Plants

Cathie

I planted two tomatillo plants right next to each other. For weeks they kept getting tons of flowers but none were pollinating and developing into the green pillow-y husk.

The plants were gorgeous and healthy.

I decided to hand pollinate with a small paint brush, gently brushing flowers from one plant then back to the other. Unbelievable results, my plants are loaded with developing fruit.

One thing I read somewhere is when the outdoor temp. is creeping into the high 80’s, pollen melts. It will not drop or float to help the plant self pollinate. It has been a relentlessly hot, dry summer here in Denver so far, many days in the high 90’s and low hundreds. I don’t know if it is true about pollen melting, but I can say for a fact that hand pollinating between the two plants was successful and I continue to do it with my tomatillo’s, peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants. I am getting production from all of them.

Kelly Smith Trimble

Hi Cathie,

Thanks for sharing! This is great info. Yes, pollination is definitely a problem in the heat as pollen does become sticky and less effective. You can read more about this in our blog post about tomatoes not setting fruit. Happy growing!

Kelly, Bonnie Plants

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