Tomatillos: How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Tomatillo "Green Tomatoes" | The Old Farmer's Almanac

How to Grow Tomatillos: The Complete Guide

Green tomatoes next to a bowl of salsa verde
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Botanical Name
Physalis philadelphica
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Planting, Growing, and Harvesting Tomatillos

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Tomatillos are not just unripe tomatoes! Usually sold with their papery husks still intact, these green fruits are an easy-to-grow garden performer—and go wonderfully in salsas and more! Learn how to plant, grow, and harvest tomatillos. 

What Are Tomatillos?

Despite the name (tomatillo means “little tomato” in Spanish), tomatillos are not tomatoes but a separate species, Physalis philadelphica or Phsyalis ixocarpa. Common names also include Mexican ground cherry or husk cherry. The fruits are smaller than an average tomato, usually less than 2 inches in diameter. The plants, however, can grow quite large, some reaching 4 feet tall and wide.

Native to Central America, tomatillos grow wild in parts of Mexico and have been cultivated for hundreds if not thousands of years. Smaller than a standard tomato, the fruits are green and covered in a papery husk, called a calyx. Some varieties may ripen to yellow or purple. 

Picked green, they have a tart, bright, almost citrusy flavor and are a good source of vitamin C. The most famous use for tomatillos is in making salsa verde, but don’t limit yourself to just one dish! Tomatillos are fantastic in chilis and soups, with eggs and seafood, as an ingredient in salad dressings, preserved in jellies, added to guac, and grilled with meats.


Full sun, hot weather, fertile well-drained soil, and mulch are the ingredients for a large tomatillo harvest. You’ll need at least two tomatillo plants to get them to set fruit. They are not self-fertile. Plant them near each other to help your pollinators get the job done.

While you might find tomatillos in your local garden center, they are less common than tomatoes, so you may need to start them from seed. Don’t worry; they germinate reliably. If you find tomatillo starter plants at the nursery, choose stout-stemmed plants that have not yet flowered or started to fruit.

Tomatillos share many of the same pest issues as other nightshade family plants (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, or peppers) so crop rotation is important.

When to Plant Tomatillos

Tomatillos start readily from seed but must be hardened off before going into your garden. 

  • Start from seed 6 to 8 weeks before you wish to transplant them outdoors. They should have five leaves and a well-developed set of roots before being planted in the garden. 
  • Tomatillos enjoy the warmth and won’t grow well in cool temperatures. Soil temperatures should be about 60 degrees or warmer. 
  • Whether started from seed or purchased as nursery starts, plant tomatillos outdoors several weeks after your last frost. See our Planting Calendar for when to plant tomatoes in your location and plant your tomatillos at the same time.

How to Plant Tomatillos

A mature tomatillo can spread out to occupy about six square feet. Space plants every two feet, with rows three feet apart. 

To start them from seed:
  • Prepare your trays or cell packs with a pre-moistened seed starting mix. 50-cell trays work well, but whatever size you have on hand will do. 
  • Sow 2 to 3 seeds per cell, about a quarter inch deep.
  • Cover with plastic wrap or a humidity dome to aid in retaining moisture.
  • Place in a warm, bright location. Tomatillo seeds germinate best above 70 degrees. A heat mat under the tray will speed germination if your greenhouse or home is cold. 
  • Thin to one sprout per cell or equivalent spacing after seedlings are an inch tall. Snip them with scissors to avoid disturbing the roots of the remaining young plant.
To transplant tomatillos into your garden:
  • Work about an inch of compost into the soil. 
  • Loosen any pot-bound roots.
  • Like a tomato, plant young tomatillos deep. It’s okay, and even preferred, to bury a tomatillo transplant all the way up to the first set of true leaves. Deep planting encourages the rooting of tomatillos (and tomatoes) and provides a sturdy base for the young plant. 
  • Set your stakes or trellis at the same time as you transplant. Don’t wait too long, as I often do, and have plants sprawled all over the ground.
  • The plants can be trained onto their supports as soon as they can reach them, and you’ll prevent root damage caused by driving stakes or supports through the roots later in the season. 

Tomatillos are perennials but are usually raised as annuals. They can grow quite large, so stake them to keep the fruit off the ground and support the plants. Check out this University of Minnesota Extension page for more information on growing tomatillos in your garden

  • Compost or aged manure are great additions to the native soil of your garden but don’t overdo it. Too much nitrogen and your tomatillos might grow like the wind but set little fruit.
  • Water regularly at the base of the plant. An inch to an inch and a half per week should suffice. Drip line irrigation is ideally suited to tomatillos.
  • If you have to water with an overhead system, do so in the morning so the leaves can dry out quickly and minimize the potential for disease.
  • Mulch under and around your tomatillos. Black plastic mulch can be used in the spring to warm the soil and lock in moisture if your soil is prone to drying out. Organic mulches are excellent at protecting the surface and preventing soil from splashing onto leaves. Natural mulches will also decay and improve your soil.

  • Tomatillos should be harvested when the fruit has filled the outer husk. In some cases, the husk may start to split. 
  • The fruits should be firm. Overripe fruit will be softer and not keep as well. Harvest (or check) once or twice a week once the fruits are ripening.
  • Watch for the husks to begin turning from bright green to tan or faded green. 
  • Tomatillos will keep for 2 to 3 weeks in a paper bag on the kitchen counter or can be frozen for later use. 

If you notice a sticky residue on the tomatillos, wash it off before eating.

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Cooking Notes

With tomatillos, the fruit inside the papery husk is eaten. The leaves, husk, and stem are toxic and shouldn’t be eaten. Before eating the fruit, be sure to scrub the fruit clean of any sticky husk residue. Do not remove the green peeling.

They can be eaten raw or cooked, though many people find the flavor too sour and pungent to eat raw. If you boil them for about 8 minutes in water, they’ll become more tender and lemony tart. Blend to make salsa verde or slice to add to recipes.

Tomatillos Salsa

For an easy salsa, chop up tomatillos (remove the stem part), and add to a skillet with sautéed garlic and onion. Cook tomatillos for about 6 to 8 minutes, until tender and slightly browned. That’s it! We love salsa with tortillas, tacos, fish, chicken, beans, and cheese.

About The Author

Andy Wilcox

Andy Wilcox is a flower farmer and master gardener with a passion for soil health, small producers, forestry, and horticulture. Read More from Andy Wilcox

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