Tomatillos are a favorite in my veggie garden. One plant can produce an almost overwhelming harvest, which for me means I can make lots of salsa verde (a staple in my fall pantry). Knowing when to harvest tomatillos will help to make sure you are picking the fruit when it’s at its most flavorful.
There are two types of tomatillos, Physalis philadephica and Physalis ixocarpa. And there are several varieties of both. These members of the nightshade family are native to Mexico and Central America, and have featured prominently in the cuisine of those countries since the pre-Columbian era.
Have patience when growing tomatillos
You can pick a LOT of tomatillos from one plant. However, because the plants aren’t self-pollinating, you need at least two or more tomatillo plants for them to produce fruit.
Tomatillo plants will grow an abundance of yellow flowers that turn into round, empty husks (from the calyx). That’s where the tomatillos will start to form, eventually filling out those husks.
Growing tomatillos takes patience. Also called Mexican ground cherries and Mexican husk tomatoes, tomatillos can be very slow to fruit. (You may even want to hand pollinate them if you’re impatient.) But once they get going, look out! The plants can become very heavy once the tomatillos start to develop. I’ve had plants start to lean from their own weight. You’ll need to cage or stake the plants—try to do this early in the season when the plants are still small, so you don’t disturb the roots or risk breaking off branches later on. I often find myself even staking single branches to support their weight. Sudden summer storms can also harm even the sturdiest-looking tomatillo plants, proving stakes or cages are a good idea.
As far as pests go, most years I’m picking off (and squishing or drowing) three-lined potato beetles—they like to hide under the leaves and chew the foliage—and scraping off any larvae I find from the undersides of the leaves. Colorado potato beetles also like to descend upon tomatillo plants. They can overwinter in the soil, so it’s a good idea to rotate your crops every couple of years or so.
When to harvest tomatillos
I’m usually out in my garden every morning, even when I don’t need to water, so that’s when I’ll harvest my tomatillos, along with anything else that’s ready to pick or pull.
As I mentioned, tomatillos can be slow to develop fruit, but once those green “lanterns” start to appear, your harvest season is around the corner. I’ll give the casings a gentle squeeze when I’m curious to see how the fruit is coming along.
You’ll know when to harvest tomatillos once those lanterns are filled out, start to dry, and the papery husks burst open revealing the fruit inside, like the Hulk when his clothes start to get too tight.
Like their ground ground cherry cousins, ripe tomatillos may simply fall off the plant when they’re ready. Take a look at the base of your plants once you know they’re almost ready so you don’t miss any! I also find if tomatillos are still on the plant with split, papery husks, all you have to do is just touch or tug them lightly and they fall off in your hand. If the stem doesn’t easily come away from the plant, I’d give it another day or so. Unlike a tomato, you can’t harvest tomatillos to ripen and mature on a windowsill.
You can eat tomatillos when they’re still a bit immature. Often at the end of the season I’ll harvest tomatillos that are close to ripe if I know they’re in danger of being touched by frost. They’ll get tossed into a green salsa. I don’t want any to go to waste! And, at this point, I’ll pull out the plants.
This year, if decent-sized fruit remains on a plant and I’m not ready to pick it, I will pull it out and hang it upside down in my unheated garage. Tomatillos will keep for a couple of months when stored this way.
What to do with your tomatillo harvest
Once peeled, your ripe tomatillos will be green, purple, or yellow, depending on the variety you’ve planted. Green tomatillos are ripe when they are still green. As they start to turn yellow, they lose that tangy flavor they’re known for. Purple tomatillos taste a bit sweeter. Both make great salsa!
Before eating your tomatillos, you need to remove the last bits of those paper husks. They should simply peel away. The fruit will be sticky from the husks, so give them a rinse in warm water.
My favorite thing to do with my tomatillo harvest is to make salsa verde. I eat this all winter on tacos and enchiladas, and over omelettes. I’ll even put salsa verde in guacamole. You can also add tomatillos to tomato salsa recipes. I found some tomatillo recipes I’m interested in trying on Bon Appétit, as well.
Store tomatillos in a cool, dry location. They last on the counter for about a week, and in the fridge in a paper bag for about three weeks.
Pull out your tomatillo plants once the harvest is complete
Tomatillos will keep producing fruit, well into the fall. Because tomatillos tend to fall into the garden when ripe, they’ll start to decompose. Try to fish them out of the soil before the fruit itself splits. For one, you’ll have a mushy mess on your hands during fall cleanup as the fruit starts to rot. Furthermore, leaving the seeds in the ground over the winter means seedlings will start to appear in the spring. This is fine if you’d like to grow plants in that garden again. But I’ve pulled both tomatillo and ground cherry seedlings from my raised beds two to three years after I rotated them out of a particular garden. This year, I have a plant growing a few feet away from a raised bed in a patch of daylilies. They are persistent!