Keep Your Tomatillos Beetle-Free

Tomatillos of all colors are at risk of one particular pest: the three-lined potato beetle.

by Jessica Walliser
PHOTO: Jessica Walliser

Tomatillos, a husked fruit in the tomato family, are full of nutrients and fiber, and they’re so easy to grow. With a rich flavor and dense texture that’s excellent for making salsa verde, tomatillos have become a must-grow in my garden every season.

The plants are highly-branched and sprawling, and each plant bears dozens of husked fruits, each about 1 to 2 inches across. You know the fruits are ripe when the husk splits and folds back, exposing the fruit inside. Ripe fruits often fall to the ground, where they can be collected and taken to the kitchen. Although staking or caging the plants isn’t necessary, I find using a wire tomato cage around each plant, keeps the plants more upright and makes harvesting a bit easier.

Tomatillos Of A Different Color

There are many different tomatillo varieties, though some are more difficult to find than others. We’re big fans of the purple varieties, as the flavor tends to be much sweeter. Purple tomatillos can be eaten fresh off the vine, though we much prefer to grill them or make purple salsa.

Good green varieties include Toma Verde, Gulliver and Miltomate. These selections have a tart flavor that’s perfect for making fresh salsa verde. We grow several varieties of jalapeno peppers for the same purpose.

There are also a handful of yellow tomatillos, though we’ve only ever grown a variety called Mexican Strain. It comes in a bit earlier than the green or purple types, producing fruits about 10 days before the other varieties we grow. The fruits of Mexican Strain are almost twice as large as green and purple types, and I find they’re more flavorful after they fall from the plant. I’ve added these to my homemade spaghetti sauce and tomato soup and have had excellent results. They’re very meaty.

The Big Enemy

three-lined potato beetle

The biggest challenge we’ve faced when growing tomatillos is in the form of a tiny insect called the three-lined potato beetle. These little buggers can completely defoliate a tomatillo plant in short order. The adults look a lot like cucumber beetles, but they only have three black stripes. They lay eggs on tomatillo plants, and the newly hatched larvae feed in groups. These little guys look like slimy, brown, miniature slugs with black heads. And, what’s really gross, is that they cover themselves with their own excrement to mask themselves from predators. Ick!

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To control three-lined potato beetle grubs, we squish them or apply a spinosad-based organic pesticide to plants where the beetle grubs are present. If caught early enough, you can prevent them from causing significant damage to the plants. I check my plants for new grubs every few days throughout the season.

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