If you were assigned to learn everything there is to know about one vegetable and grow seedlings for an entire semester without killing them, what would you select?
That’s exactly what I had to do for a sustainable agriculture class this past semester. I originally posted this question on the Food Guy Adventures Facebook page. There were a nice set of responses including artichoke, fennel, lettuces, cucumbers, peppers and squash. I ended up taking a much more unexpected route and opted to study the mighty tomatillo.
Fast forward to today. The semester is now over and my super exciting grade was officially posted to my transcript. A stack of reference books have been returned to the library, and best of all, a happy little tray of seedlings is ready to be planted in the university garden.
One of the papers I was required to write for the class outlined specifics on how to successfully grow tomatillo plants from seed. I thought it would be fun to share with you a revised version of my research. But, do not fear…I took out all of the boring academic stuff.
Suggested Recipe: I recommend trying my Roasted Tomatillo Salsa recipe. It’s delish!
Varieties: The most common variety is Toma Verde with fruit that is fleshly like a tomato and is enclosed in a thin, papery husk.
Growing Season: Tomatillos have a long growing season during the summer months. If you live in the mid-western United States, the flowering period occurs starting in mid-June and fruits start to ripen in late July. Fruit continues to grow until the first frost in the fall.
Starting Seeds: Tomatillos can be started indoors in a green house approximately 6-8 weeks before the last frost. This will help give the seedlings a head start before they are transplanted outside. According to the Iowa State University Horticulture Guide online, “they can be direct seeded outdoors, but because of their long growing season, they will not be as productive.”
The soil temperature of the seedling trays should be kept to approximately 70-80 degrees until the seedlings start to sprout. A growing light might need to be installed to help prevent the stems from becoming scraggy if they are not grown in a green house.
The best way to plant the seeds indoors are by placing 2 to 3 seeds in every 1-inch cell and once the seeds germinate, thin them out to 1 seedling per cell.
Outdoor Soil: Proper planting conditions should include a balanced mix of well drained soil with composted organic matter. It is important to avoid a soil containing too much nitrogen. They tend to do well in a similar environment as tomatoes with the exception of overly wet conditions.
Transplanting: It is recommended to move the seedling trays outdoors for progressively increased time intervals to help strengthen the stems and prepare plants for the outdoors. It is recommended to space the plants approximately 18” apart in the rows and roughly three feet between rows to promote good air circulation. This will help to prevent disease and pests.
Watering: Regular watering is necessary especially during the dry season. Tomatillos will need about 1 to 1 ½ inches of water per week. During dry weather, water plants at least once per week. It is important to avoid overwatering as this will cause the fruit to become large. As the fruit increases in size, the flavor will decrease.
Sunlight: Tomatillos are best grown in direct and full sunlight in an area that promotes good air circulation.
Staking: Fully mature plants tend to be bushy similar to common tomato plants. It stems tend to branch out approximately 3-4 feet wide and grow roughly the same in height. As the fruit grows, it tends to become heavy and strain the branches. Staking the plants will be needed to provide proper support.
Fertilization: Throughout the growing season, regular fertilization will be needed. The best way to incorporate nutrients into the soil is through tea composting or other organic fertilizer.
Harvesting: Tomatillo fruit are rich in vitamin C and are a common ingredient in Salsa Verde. It takes approximately 120 to completely mature and could yield 60-200 fruits per plant. Harvest the fruit when the husk changes from green to tan while the berry is still green for the best flavor. However, the size of the fruit within the husk may vary.
Photo Note: The tomatillo picture are from the bounty I harvested from plants I grew last season. Do they look pretty?