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on the trail of tomatillos: podcast, and a giveaway

Tomatillo ripening on the vineADD THEM TO THE LIST of plants I suddenly noticed are MIA—things I “always” grew but haven’t lately. The latest “where did they go?” crop: tomatillos. I’m determined to master a salsa recipe to can or freeze this year, particularly a green one, or salsa verde. That’s why tomatillos, which self-sowed here for a decade before disappearing who knows why or exactly when, are on the to-grow list in 2013. Some how-to—including on my weekly radio show, where I get advice from my friend Gayla Trail—plus a giveaway of a whole salsa-garden seed kit.

prefer the podcast?

TOMATILLOS AND SALSA, and some unusual relatives of the tomatillo, were the subject of the latest edition of my weekly public-radio program, with guest Gayla Trail of You Grow Girl [dot] com. Listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday  about 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The February 18, 2013 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marks the start of its fourth year in March, and is available for syndication by other public-radio stations via PRX.

Tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa or P. philadelphica, depending which variety you grow) are cousin to the tomato and other solanaceous crops or nightshades, such as peppers, potatoes, and eggplants. But it’s much easier to see their even closer relationship to the Chinese lantern, Physalis alkekengi, a somewhat-thuggish perennial that’s wonderful dried, with its papery orange husks (the lanterns, technically the calyx).

Gayla of You Grow Girl [dot] com  is a mad canner who also admits to an obsession with solanums—“even including just-on-the-verge-of-edible ones,” she says—so I knew the plain old edible tomatillo and salsa would be a great topic for us.

growing tomatillos

IN GAYLA’S Toronto, Ontario, location and mine in New York State, tomatillos that set fruit will then self-sow the coming year (assuming some fruit is left in the garden to do so). But we don’t get enough early heat to prompt those seedlings to get up and growing in time to accommodate the long season a tomatillo prefers, and that means a short, reduced harvest—unless we start inside, Gayla reminded me (she has a full how-to on her blog). She likes to sow up to 8 weeks ahead of her frost-free date indoors under lights.

Even Pattie Boudier, co-founder of Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply in much milder Zone 8 in Northern California, agrees a headstart can be beneficial.

“My property is a little microclimate, and some years there is a tendency for a late start to the heat needed for the nightshade family,” she says. “But unless there is a hail storm in the fall, they look great and produce until the first frost since our summers are typically long, like until October.”

Tomatillos can be left to sprawl, but staking them is better, keeping the fruit up off the ground (and at least away from slugs if not chipmunks!). Or put them in tomato cages–big ones. Gayla has grown various yellow, green and purple varieties of tomatillos in the ground and also in containers some years, so even small-space gardeners can accommodate a plant or two. In the ground, space them 2-3 feet apart.

I highly recommend having an extra plant so you can pilfer the occasional flowering, fruit-setting shoot for cottagey floral arrangements—something I also like to do with developing sprays of cherry tomatoes.

As for my salsa quest, Gayla recommends a not-too-hot pepper as part of the mix, such as an ancho (a.k.a. poblano), or maybe ‘Pasilla Bajio’ (which we managed to spell wrong on the radio, but is also used in mole sauces and turns the darkest purple when ripe).

Interested in trying other edible Physalis? Gayla always makes room for ground cherries, with an orange-citrus-pineapple flavor, and also for cape gooseberries (P. peruviana)—their flavor is citrusy, too. The latter needs to be started very early if you’re up north. With the ground cherries, there are various species, some hardier than others. Both ground cherries and cape gooseberries are favorites in jams, or just eaten right in the garden.

And then there are those barely edible ones that really get plant-mad Gayla going—some crazy-thorny and all Little Shop of Horrors-ish, even. For more on that, I recommend the podcast.

how to win the seed collection

salsa seed kitTHERE ARE 2 WAYS TO WIN, and each of the winners chosen at random will win one Salsa Fiesta Collection Gift Seed Tin courtesy of Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply, a sponsor here at A Way to Garden. The gift set contains seed from 10 different vegetables and herbs that can be grown to make several different types of salsa, including both a purple and a green tomatillo. (UPDATE: Giveaway finished in February 2013!)

All you have to do to enter is answer the following question in the comments below:

Do you make your own homegrown salsa? Please share your hints, tips, and favorite ingredients, or go ahead and just say “Count me in” if you’re feeling shy.

(My answer: F-A-I-L. It’s always too hot to eat! But this year I will nail it.)

After commenting below, click over to Gayla’s tomatillo post at You Grow Girl, and comment there for a second chance at the prize. You can just cut and paste your comment if you like–but don’t miss the chance to enter there, too.

Winners will be drawn randomly after entries close at midnight on Monday, February 25, and informed by email. (U.S. residents only for this event.)

Thanks again to Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply, in the business of providing supplies for organic gardening since 1976, for their support of You Grow Girl and A Way to Garden.

  1. Carol Phillips says:

    Quartered cherry tomatoes, yellow too, one basket
    Diced sweet onion
    Diced jalapeño or pepper of choice, 1 to 2 depending on desired heat
    Diced avocado
    Rough chopped cilantro
    Fresh squeezed lime juice
    Salt
    Garlic powder

    Mix all ingredients and season to taste

  2. mary green says:

    I can’t wait for tomatillos at the Farmer Market here. I make it every week. My 23 year old son comes over and he can’t get enough. Last year we made a huge mixing bowl full every week. Gotta love it with chicken, fish, salads and EVERYTHING!

  3. Laura Schlaikjer says:

    I am determined that I will find the perfect recipe this year and can my salsa. Takes up too much room in the freezer! My favorite uses fresh peaches, tomotoes and onion, but I have tomatillos that come up every year, and want to expand beyond the simple green salsa with onions and cilantro. Perusing mexican cookbooks to learn more! May need a separate space as they do take up so much room in the garden…

  4. Sarah says:

    I’ve only made fresh salsa. Canned or frozen would be wonderful, with the right recipe. So if yours is too hot, back off on the heat! Oh. . . that magical combination, heat and flavor. . . Count me in! And share your salsa recipe! Or is it archived?

  5. Elsie Ardry says:

    Please count me in. I would love to grow tomatillos, tomatoes, bell peppers, basil, green onions, garlic, eggplant, etc. With your help, I just might be able to. Thank you for this opportunity.

  6. Megan Cain says:

    The secret to our popular tomato salsa is tomato paste. I hate to admit it because it means we buy a non-local tomato product to put into our all local salsa. We can’t seem to quit though, because it makes the best salsa we’ve ever made.

  7. Megan Cain says:

    I learned this past year when I planted one tomatillo in a client’s garden that they don’t set fruit if you only have one. I guess I never planted only one plant before!

  8. Joan weed says:

    Megan, here’s a trick I use to thicken my salsa—take out a portion and pureé it with my immersible blender and then pour it back into the dish. So you still have chunks but a smooth base sauce.

  9. Lisa LW says:

    You say tomato, I say tomatillo ;-) Tomatillo’s tart/sweet taste adds a much needed tang in salsa – especially mild to medium in spice. I like my salsas HOT but when entertaining I need to think of others delicate palate. That’s where tomatillos come into play for me. Flavor dances on my tongue even without the bite of a serrano pepper. Can’t wait until grow season!!!

  10. Heather Downey says:

    THIS IS PERFECT! I have lost 80 pounds going to fruits and veggies. I make veggie beans with tomatillos and gralic, cilantro, onions and tomatoes in the slow cooker. I make salsa the chunky way, Pico De Gaio, with fresh ingridents and this has been one of my staples for the past year. We have a small community of cottages and last yea we gardened all of our own veggies. We are working the soil now for our spring garden and this seed collection would be such a gift to me!!! I want it so much!!! Wish me luck!! :) Heather

  11. Konnie Hansen says:

    Please count me in…. I have always wanted to make and can my own salsa, just never prepared a large enough garden for all the fixings… I’ve spent the past year expanding my garden to include enough space for peppers and onions, so this will be my first year to hopefully grow my own and make my own…

  12. Maureen Newman says:

    Fresh garden tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, tomatillos, sometimes corn, always cilantro, lime juice, sliced scallions on top. If we want more of a meal, I add avocado and sour cream. Count me in! Thanks!

  13. jenny says:

    I grew tomatillos and peppers last summer. I made a salsa verde with and canned about 8 quarts of beautiful spicy sauce. Unfortunately the spice mellowed after being canned, so I’ll ramp up the spiciness next fall. I like it on anything. Add tiny cubes of feta for salsa con queso.

  14. Brenda says:

    Count me in! I LOVE making Chile Verde, and plan to grow lots of tomatillos, peppers and cilantro for it, also a variety of tomatoes (heirloom) for salsa and making pizza sauce! Yum!
    Can’t wait for summer!
    :)

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