As tomatillos become more popular in the home garden, more gardeners are learning the ins and outs of growing them. I think a lot of people think they grow just like tomatoes, just because they’re in the same nightshade family and kind of look like green tomatoes.
However, tomatillos need different levels of care compared to tomatoes, and tomatillos only share some of their pests and problems with tomatoes.
Tomatillos don’t ripen red like tomatoes, so it’s easy for first-time tomatillo growers to either pick too early or too late. Tomatillos are ripe and ready to harvest when the husk turns brown and splits open. At peak ripeness, they will often fall to the ground. The tomatillo itself may also change color, but it depends on the variety. You can also harvest and eat underripe tomatillos (such as in salsa verde) but they will be more bitter, sour, and do contain solanine, which is mildly toxic if eaten in large quantities.
How Long Until I Get Ripe Tomatillos?
Tomatillo varieties produce ripe fruit around 60 to 85 days from transplanting. You can usually find the estimated days for your variety on the seed packet or plant label.
However, days to maturity should always be taken as just a guideline. The actual time it takes from planting to harvesting can vary based on your local climate and the amount of sunlight your tomatillo plants are getting. If the weather is cool, your tomatillo plants will grow more slowly; if you grow your tomatillos in shade or too late in the year when there is less sunlight, your tomatillos will also take longer to ripen.
When to Harvest Tomatillos
If it’s your first time growing tomatillos, it can be difficult to identify when they are even ripe. Ripe tomatillos are often still green, so it can be impossible to tell by sight alone.
Tomatillos can be picked and eaten when they are either underripe or fully mature. Ripe tomatillos will have that classic sweet-and-savory tomatillo taste that kind of reminds you of tomatoes (and can be used as a substitute for tomatoes in some recipes). Unripe tomatillos are firmer, more sour, and often more bitter the less ripe they are.
Fully mature tomatillos can be picked after split the paper shell, which will start drying up. Often, they will also fall to the ground, similar to ground cherries. Once they fall on the ground, ripe tomatillos must be picked up as soon as possible before they attract animals.
Here is a good video showing examples of picking fallen, ripe tomatillos:
You can still pick tomatillos when they are still on the plant. Unripe tomatillos are best picked when they are large enough to fill out the paper shell, either right before or right after the paper splits. They will still have that rich, tangy, unripe tomatillo flavor but with less bitterness, with added complex flavors that start developing right before fully ripening.
Can You Eat Unripe Tomatillos? Are They Poisonous?
For the most part, yes. All members of the nightshade family, which includes tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, eggplants, and potatoes, produce a toxic substance called solanine. Solanine can be present in leaves, fruit, and roots, but is not always present equally in every nightshade. For instance, ripe tomatoes are very safe to eat in large quantities, but ripe potato fruits (yes, potato plants produce little cherry-tomato-shaped fruit) are highly toxic.
Unripe tomatillos have more solanine than ripe ones, which give them a bitter taste. However, the level of solanine is not dangerously high. In low to moderate quantities, unripe tomatillos are still safe, and are used in traditional Mexican dishes like salsa verde. However, if you have a known sensitivity to solanine, only eat ripe tomatillos.
I would only advise against eating very tiny, immature tomatillos, as they will have the highest concentration of solanine and won’t taste good anyway.
How to Harvest Tomatillos
Fully ripe tomatillos will usually fall to the ground naturally, so don’t think tomatillos under your plant are not good to eat. As long as they haven’t been eaten by pests or gone rotten, you can pick them up and take them inside. You can even give your tomatillo plant a very gentle shake to drop any loose tomatillos ready to harvest. I do this with ground cherries aswell.
If picking unripe tomatillos or ripe ones that haven’t fallen on the ground, pick them the same way you would pick tomatoes: you can usually pluck them off by hand but some garden scissors work on the more stubborn tomatillos.