Tomatillos: Direct Sow Vegetable
How to Sow
- Start tomatillo seeds indoors in a warm, well-lighted area about 8 weeks before the last frost.
- Sow seed ¼ inch deep into individual containers filled with seed-starting formula.
- Firm lightly and keep evenly moist.
- Seedlings emerge in 10-21 days at 75-80 degrees F.
- As soon as seedlings emerge, provide plenty of light on a sunny windowsill or grow seedlings 3-4 inches beneath fluorescent plant lights turned on 16 hours per day, off for 8 hours at night. Raise the lights as the plants grow taller. Incandescent bulbs will not work for this process because they will get too hot. Most plants require a dark period to grow, do not leave lights on for 24 hours.
- Seedlings do not need much fertilizer, feed when they are 3-4 weeks old using a starter solution (half strength of a complete indoor houseplant food) according to manufacturer’s directions.
- If you are growing in small cells, you may need to transplant the seedlings to 3 or 4 inch pots when seedlings have at least 3 pairs of leaves before transplanting to the garden so they have enough room to develop strong roots.
- Before planting in the garden, seedling plants need to be “hardened off”. Accustom young plants to outdoor conditions by moving them to a sheltered place outside for a week. Be sure to protect them from wind and hot sun at first. If frost threatens at night, cover or bring containers indoors, then take them out again in the morning. This hardening off process toughens the plant’s cell structure and reduces transplant shock and scalding.
- Transplant hardened-off seedlings to the garden once nighttime temperatures remain above 50 degrees F.
Planting in the Garden:
- Select a location in full sun with well-drained soil. Do not plant tomatillos where the nightshade crops, including tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers, have been grown in the last three seasons.
- Prepare the bed by turning the soil under to a depth of 8 inches. Level with a rake to remove clumps of grass and stones. Work in organic matter prior to planting.
- Space plants 2 feet apart if you will cage them, 3 feet apart if you will not cage. Place cages at the time of transplanting.
- Set plants slightly deeper than they were growing previously.
How to Grow
- Keep weeds under control during the growing season. Weeds compete with plants for water, space and nutrients, so control them by either cultivating often or use a mulch to prevent their seeds from germinating. Avoid disturbing the soil around the plants when weeding.
- Keep plants well watered during dry periods to promote rapid, uninterrupted growth. Plants need about 1 inch of rain per week during the growing season. Use a rain gauge to check to see if you need to add water. It’s best to water with a drip or trickle system that delivers water at low pressure at the soil level. If you water with overhead sprinklers, water early in the day so the foliage has time to dry off before evening, to minimize disease problems. Keep the soil moist but not saturated.
- Pinch off the tips of the branches to control spread.
- Monitor for pests and diseases. Check with your local Cooperative Extension Service for pest controls recommended for your area.
Harvest and Preserving Tips
- Harvest tomatillos when the fruits fill out the husks and the husks begin to break open, about 100 hundred days after transplanting. In some cases, the fruits will not break open the husks and you have to feel the fruits for firmness. Ripe tomatillos turn green to pale yellow.
- Harvest the fruits, husks and all.
- If you are using them right away, remove the husks and wash the sticky fruits. Otherwise leave the husks in place, and you can store the fruit for up to a month.
- Do not seal them in plastic bags or airtight containers, store them in mesh bags in a cool, well ventilated spot.
- Tomatillos are the key ingredient to Salsa Verde. Smaller varieties are delicious for fresh eating.
- Tomatillos may also be frozen or made into chutney.
Common Disease Problems
Anthracnose: This is a fungus disease that attacks the fruit as it is ripening. The first visible sign is a circular spot on the skin that is slightly sunken. The spots enlarge and turn black; the fruit rots. Extended periods of heat and humidity facilitate anthracnose growth. The fungus overwinters in diseased plant debris. Burpee Recommends: Plant resistant varieties, provide sufficient space between plants for good air circulation, avoid overhead watering which can spread the fungus spores, keep a clean garden, remove and discard all diseased plant material and rotate crops. Use a mulch to prevent spores from splashing from the soil onto plants.
Bacterial Leaf Spot: First signs are small translucent spots with a broad yellowish edge that slowly enlarge and become angular or irregularly circular with a reddish center. It thrives in cooler temperatures. The disease may also affect and disfigure flower heads. Burpee Recommends: Remove infected plants. Rotate crops with plants in a different family. Avoid overhead watering. Do not work around plants when they are wet.
Root Knot Nematodes: Microscopic worm-like pests that cause swellings (galls) to form on roots. Plants may wilt or appear stunted. This is a serious problem in many Southern states. Burpee Recommends: Do not plant into infested soil. Try planting ‘Nema-Gone’ marigolds around your plants.
Tobacco Mosaic Virus: The most characteristic sign of virus is tight and dark green mottling of the leaves. Young leaves may be bunched. Young plants may have a yellowish tone and become stunted. Fruit is usually not affected in outward appearance, but it may be smaller and scarcer. Leaflets may point upward and have a grayish cast. Burpee Recommends: This disease is readily spread by handling. Destroy diseased plants and the plants on either side. Never smoke in the garden as Tobacco Mosaic Virus can be transmitted from a smoker's unwashed hands while handling plants.
Wilt Diseases: Bacterial wilt is evidenced by rapid wilting and the death of the plant caused by soil-borne bacteria. There is no forewarning of yellow or spotted leaves. When the affected stem is cut near the soil line, the area is dark and oozes a gray slime. The wilt does not attack the fruit. The bacteria live in the soil and enter the plant through the roots. Control Measures: Do not grow plants in the same family in that area or nearby for 4 or 5 years. Continue to apply generous amounts of healthy compost to soil while fallow or support other crops. Fusarium wilt is one of the most damaging tomato diseases because of its spread during periods of hot weather. The first symptom of fusarium is the appearance of a few yellow leaves or a slight drooping of the lower leaves. Caused by a soil-borne fungus, the fungus enters through the roots and passes up into the stem producing toxic substances. This fungus is similar to verticillium wilt but will affect first onset side of the plant and then the other. Burpee Recommends: Destroy affected plants at the first sign of fusarium; rotate crops. Verticillium wilt causes a wilting of the leaves and stems on several branches. Leaf margins cup upward, leaves turn yellow and drop off. If fruit is produced, it is usually smaller than normal. Like fusarium this will enter through the roots, migrating up the stem and plugging a plant's transport vessels. It is transmitted in the soil. It can also be spread by water and tools. Burpee Recommends: Practice at least a 4 year crop rotation. Remove and burn crop debris. Walnut Wilt causes overall wilting of plants, or dwarfed growth, in close proximity to living walnut tree. Some or all plants in a planting may be affected. Burpee Recommends: Do not plant tomatoes near Black Walnut trees. These trees exude a toxin from their roots which kills many plants.
Common Pest and Cultural Problems
Aphids: Greenish, red, black or peach colored sucking insects can spread disease as they feed on the undersides of leaves. They leave a sticky residue on foliage that attracts ants. Burpee Recommends: Introduce or attract natural predators into your garden such as lady beetles and wasps which feed on aphids. You can also wash them off with a strong spray, or use an insecticidal soap.
Cutworms: These insects cut off the seedlings at the soil level. Burpee Recommends: Place a paper cup collar (use a coffee cut with the bottom cut out) around the base of the plant. They are usually mostly a problem with young seedlings. You can also control by handpicking and controlling weeds, where they lay their eggs.
Slugs: These pests leave large holes in the foliage or eat leaves entirely. They leave a slime trail, feed at night and are mostly a problem in damp weather. Burpee Recommends: Hand pick, at night if possible. You can try attracting the slugs to traps either using cornmeal or beer. For a beer trap, dig a hole in the ground and place a large cup or bowl into the hole; use something that has steep sides so that the slugs can’t crawl back out when they’re finished. Fill the bowl about ¾ of the way full with beer, and let it sit overnight. In the morning, the bowl should be full of drowned slugs that can be dumped out for the birds to eat. For a cornmeal trap, put a tablespoon or two of cornmeal in a jar and put it on its side near the plants. Slugs are attracted to the scent but they cannot digest it and it will kill them. You can also try placing a barrier around your plants of diatomaceous earth or even coffee grounds. They cannot crawl over these.
Spider Mites: These tiny spider-like pests are about the size of a grain of pepper. They may be red, black, brown or yellow. They suck on the plant juices removing chlorophyll and injecting toxins which cause white dots on the foliage. There is often webbing visible on the plant. They cause the foliage to turn yellow and become dry and stippled. They multiply quickly and thrive in dry conditions. Burpee Recommends: Spider mites may be controlled with a forceful spray every other day. Try hot pepper wax or insecticidal soap. Check with your Cooperative Extension Service for miticide recommendations.
Whitefly: These are small white flying insects that often rise up in a cloud when plants are disturbed or brushed against. Burpee Recommends: They are difficult to control without chemicals. Try hot pepper wax or insecticidal soap. Check with your Cooperative Extension Service for pesticide recommendations.
Is tomatillo a kind of tomato? What’s a ground cherry? Tomatillo is in the nightshade family but it is not the same as a tomato. It is called a husk tomato because it looks like a tomato with a husk. Ground cherry is a related crop, the same genus but different species. Ground cherries do not need support but tomatillos tend to grow best in cages.
Can I grow tomatillo in a container? This is a large plant and does not tend to perform well in containers.
Why didn’t my tomatillo ripen before frost? Tomatillos have a long season, usually about 100 days from setting the transplants into the garden. Try a shorter season variety such as Gulliver Hybrid, which is about 75-80 days to harvest from transplants.
My tomatillo self-seeded. Will the plants be the same variety? If you planted a hybrid, no, or if you had more than one variety they may have cross pollinated. If you had one open pollinated variety, it should produce true to type.
Why did my tomatillo not produce fruit? Having two plants can greatly help with pollination.