Tomatillos and ground cherries are tomato relatives that hide their fruits in papery husks. They are easy to grow, and quite productive. Tomatillos produce best with two plants for pollination. They are the essential ingredient for salsa verde. Ground cherries are a smaller sweet version of tomatillos that can be eaten fresh or used in fruit salads and cobblers.
Tomatillos and ground cherries require at least 7 hours of direct sun and rich, well-drained soil, and a neutral pH. Prepare the planting area by mixing 2-3” of composted manure into the top 4-6” of the soil. Mix in an all- purpose granular fertilizer and lime in the bottom of each planting hole.
You can start seeds indoors mid February through March, 6-8 weeks before the last frost date. Sow seeds 1⁄4” deep and cover with a fine layer of soil. Bottom heat will help them sprout faster. Transplant seedlings into 4” pots when they have two sets of true leaves. Harden off your seedlings two weeks before desired transplanting date.
Tomatillos thrive in warm, dry weather and are best planted outdoors May through June when soil is 65°F. It helps to warm the soil first by covering the planting area with 1-2” of compost, plastic mulch or a cold frame. It is best to protect new plants with a cold frame, cloche or other product until temperatures are consistently warmer (mid May-June). Set out plants 2-3’ apart in rows 2-3’ apart. Water in new plants with liquid seaweed or B1.
Keep new beds well weeded and slightly moist. You can cover new plantings with floating row cover for 3- 4 weeks to prevent flea beetles and other insects. Plastic or organic mulches can help heat the soil, retain moisture and prevent blight. Tomatillo plants can reach 3-4’ tall. It may help to stake, cage or prune your plants to help support heavy fruit. Ground cherries reach about 18” tall and 2-3’ wide, and generally do not need additional support.
How much water your plants will require depends on the soil and weather. Tomatillos and ground cherries are drought tolerant, but yield best with a steady supply of moisture. A weekly slow, deep (2-3 gallons) watering is ideal. A consistent water supply can help prevent blossom end rot. Drip irrigation is the best way to provide even moisture, while having fewer disease issues.
Tomatillos and ground cherries are medium to heavy feeders and benefit from having a mild liquid fertilizer every two weeks once the fruits begin to appear. Another option is to side dress plants once flowers appear with composted manure.
Fruits are ripe when the husks are full and turn brown. Fully ripe fruit falls to the ground, and can still be harvested before they start to rot.
Tomatillos can store 2-4 weeks at 45°F. They can also be frozen (once par boiled and pureed) or dried. Ground cherries are especially tasty dried and can store up to three months in an air tight container.Fresh fruit can also store at room temperature for a few months. Of course large batches of salsa verde or other favorite recipes, can be canned.
Good gardening practices such as crop rotation, drip irrigation, proper planting time, floating row covers and removal of entire plants when harvest is done all help prevent many pests and diseases.