This is an article I wrote for the Great Falls Tribune (www.greatfallstribune.com) at the beginning of the month on these prolific additions to the garden. The tomatillos grow like gangbusters, and I was pretty impressed with the ground cherries this year. Even Sam got into peeling and eating them, although he still doesn't grasp the ripe vs. unripe concept. I'm just tickled he likes them!
If a challenging gardening season has you down, it’s time to plan for a sure thing next year. Tomatillos, also called husk tomatoes or green tomatoes, thrive when other plants are lagging behind.
Tomatillos are in the same nightshade family as tomatoes, but they have a far different appearance and flavor. They are the key ingredient in traditional “salsa verde” (green salsa), and has a more tart taste than most tomatoes.
It’s not difficult to tell the difference between the two species since tomatillos are covered in a delicate husk called a calyx. To many they look like paper lanterns. As it matures, the tomatillo fruit, which can be green, yellow or even purple depending on the variety, will fill the husk.
Pam Bates of Kalispell is a tomatillo aficionada, particularly when they’re paired with extremely hot peppers. She says, “It’s hard to say exactly what they taste like. They’re kind of lemony. The texture is almost like a watermelon - porous, yet crispy.”
Bates has tomatillo plants growing outside in a bed, as well as in areas inside of her greenhouse. “Those things grow like weeds,” she says. “I’ve only planted them once from a packet of seeds.”
She started her first ones inside the greenhouse, but says, “Obviously, they do fine outside, too.” She never intentionally planted them in her exterior beds, but believes they accompanied squash plants she started in the greenhouse one year.
Besides growing without babying, they are fairly resistant to insects and other pests. Deer typically won’t eat them, and they’re fairly self-contained against other invaders. Bates says, “The husk keeps the creatures away – it keeps them kind of bug proof.”
A Little Goes a Long Way
Paul Hamlin of Great Falls
Hamlin says the plants will grow eighteen inches to two feet tall, and oftentimes they’ll flop over at their maximum height. They can be staked or caged to keep them upright. He recommends thinning the volunteers once you can recognize the seedlings in the springtime to give the plants plenty of space. “Ideally you’d want them a foot or so apart.”
In his own garden he says, “A plant might come up with the peas, and that one does the best.” Tomatillos aren’t fussy about their neighbors, and sometimes the ones that grow in odd places produce more than the main patch.
For optimum growing conditions, give these Mexican natives plenty of sun, and a moderate amount of water. Once they’re established, they can withstand some drought, but will produce their best with consistent moisture. As with all vegetables, they do best with fertile, well-amended soil.
Hamlin says, “I’ll usually get some the end of August.” He’ll begin picking the two inch in diameter fruit for himself and friends. Harvesting continues until just before a hard freeze. “They have that husk on them, and a frost won’t hurt them. You can go out to harvest even after the plant has died back.” The picked fruit can stay in the refrigerator with the husks still on them for up to three weeks.
After harvesting, Hamlin pulls the vines and tosses them in the compost pile, although there are always stray fruits left in the garden that will start a new crop the following year.
Hamlin says six plants should be plenty for a “normal person” to make an ample amount of green salsa. “I gave some to a couple in Choteau, and they’re in the same situation.” The only remedy is rigorous thinning before the plants set fruit, or sharing bucketfuls with friends and making enormous batches of salsa.
For his homemade salsa, Hamlin uses tomatillos as a base, and adds hot peppers (jalapeños and Anaheim
A Sweet Cousin
For a sweeter twist on the tomatillo family, ground cherries (also called cape gooseberries) are a smaller, sweeter cousin native to the Eastern United States
Eastern United States
Instead of using ground cherries in a salsa like tomatillos, they are a better ingredient for sweet dishes such as jam and ground cherry pie or tarts.
Ground cherries are more weedy-looking, often reaching only ten to twelve inches high with a sprawling habit. They are best started indoors four to six weeks prior to setting out after the last frost in the spring, but also have a tendency to reseed once established.
Harvest the half-inch diameter fruit when it falls to the ground. They will be a golden color, and will last for weeks if kept in their husks in the refrigerator. If the fruit or the husks are still green, they are under-ripe and may be too tart.
Both tomatillos and ground cherries are a unique and delicious addition to the vegetable garden. And with their robust growing habits, they offer some very tasty rewards for very little effort.