Looking ahead to growing tomatillos in the summer

Posted Dec. 10, 2010, at 11:57 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:48 p.m.
KOK, JOS

This time of year, with workdays spent in a second-floor classroom looking out over a gray-and-white landscape, and long dark evenings filled with lesson plans and marking papers, it helps to have this weekly ritual, this column to write. It gives me pause to think about the garden season just passed and to share with my readers the lessons learned.

There always is something learned. Growing tomatillos, for example, was a new experience for me this past summer, both in Marjorie’s garden and the schoolhouse garden in Eastport. How could a gardener for more than four decades have overlooked tomatillos?

At the request of our Spanish teacher, Marilu Scott, who also owns and operates the Banks Square Pizza restaurant in Eastport, I put tomatillos (pronounced, as I was instructed, toh-mah-TEE-yoh) in the schoolyard garden planting scheme so that she could teach us how to make salsa. While ordering the traditional large-fruited salsa variety, ‘Toma Verde’, I also ordered seed of a variety that produces tiny pineapple-flavored fruits. I found this variety in the Cook’s Garden catalog along with the following description:

“You will not believe the flavor of these little gems. The golden-yellow fruits, about the size of a large blueberry, taste just like pineapple. Low-growing plants produce huge yields of tomatillos surrounded by papery husks that turn from green to brown and split open when they are ready to harvest. Pull back the husks and dip in melted chocolate for a surprising dessert. Use additional harvests for making pineapple salsa or chutney.”

It was the chocolate that sold me.

We planted too much of both varieties in the schoolyard garden, letting them sprawl over their beds without staking so that by early July you could not see the ground. In early September, the ripe ‘Toma Verde’ fruits went to salsa, but the pineapple tomatillos went into the mouths of those working in the garden. Both children and adults loved the sweet fruity taste, and we munched them like popcorn as we worked.

But we could not eat them all and many, still in their papery husks, fell to the ground. On Friday afternoons, just before pulling out of the school parking lot bound for Ellsworth, I would rake tiny tomatillos by the handful to fill a gallon pail, taking care to remove the occasional hitchhiking red ant. (Let me not be the gardener who introduces this invasive ant to Ellsworth.)

All weekend, Marjorie, Lynne and I would each grab a handful of pineapple tomatillos as we passed through the kitchen. We put them in summer salads. On Monday morning the empty pail went back to Eastport to be refilled.

I discovered in this weekly ritual that the tomatillos that fell to the ground were much sweeter than those plucked from the vine. While presumably at the peak of ripeness as they fall from the plant, they stay firm for several days at room temperature. I read that their shelf life can be extended by refrigeration in tightly-sealed plastic bags.

No doubt we will grow pineapple tomatillos in the schoolhouse garden next year. For the salsa, however, we may opt for a new variety of the Toma Verde type, ‘Purple Tomatillo,’ a short (under 10 inches tall) tomatillo that does not require staking. Each plant produces up to 50 1½- to 2-inch purple fruits that have a sweeter flavor than green tomatillos and make a purple-colored salsa. The fruits also are noticeably less sticky than the green tomatillos.

Members of the tomato family, tomatillos are warm season crops. Like tomatoes, they should be started from seed sown indoors in early May for transplanting to the garden in late May when soil temperatures have warmed to at least 60 degrees. You may find tomatillo transplants at your local garden center, perhaps even the pineapple variety. You also can purchase seed from Cook’s Garden at http://www.cooksgarden.com/.

Experienced tomatillo growers tell me, “once you have tomatillos, you always have tomatillos.” I think I understand what they mean, since at season’s end, despite efforts to clean up, there were more than enough fruits rolling around to ensure a bumper crop of volunteer seedlings next spring.

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