This year I finally planted my first vegetable garden. If you’ve been following my gardening journey, you know that for two decades, I gardened mostly in part-sun to shade. And so I didn’t have the right growing conditions for veggies. In fact, the only really sunny area in my yard was reserved for my herbs.
As a beginner vegetable gardener, I made sure to keep it small so that I could have some small wins and learn before ‘going big.’ I’ll be sure to write another post about my adventure and be sure to include the steps I followed.
This year, when I planted my small raised bed vegetable garden of tomatoes, bell peppers, jalapeños, cucumbers and zucchini, I made sure to reserve some space for one of my favorite herbs, cilantro. Previously, I didn’t always try to grow it with my other herbs because it can be frustrating to try to grow. But it can also be fun to grow at the same time. What???
Let’s take a look at this plant which seems to have a very ‘split’ personality and I’ll explain what I mean.
Cilantro – The Herb
Cilantro, also called ‘Chinese parsley’, refers to the leaves of the Coriander plant. It is very popular in Latin American and Asian cooking. As you can see from the photo, the leaves really do look like parsley but the flavor is very different. When you ask people if they like cilantro, the reaction is usually very strong one way or another. There’s certainly no in between. Some people just love the citrusy flavor that cilantro adds to dishes, while other folks find the taste ‘soapy’ and, well, they pretty much hate it.
I personally enjoy the flavor and love to add it to homemade salsa, pico de gallo or as a garnish for chili or tacos.
In fact my favorite Mexican restaurant had a small garden by the front door and cilantro was a big part of it.
The Problem with Growing Cilantro
The problem with cilantro is that in hot weather, it ‘bolts’. Cilantro prefers cool moist weather. And, like any plant, its job is to reproduce. Since it will die in hot weather, when it gets hot, cilantro goes into survival mode and produces lots of flowers and then seeds. This is called ‘bolting.’ Once it bolts, the leaves rapidly lose their flavor and can turn bitter. We normally recommend cutting the flowers off of herb plants to encourage more leaf growth. This practice works well with herbs like basil, but not with cilantro. Encouraging the growth of bitter leaves it not what we really want so this is usually the point where many herb gardeners give up and stop paying attention to cilantro/coriander.
If you just can’t get enough cilantro and live in an area that gets hot, dry weather, there are a few things you can do to keep cilantro available. First, plant varieties that are slow-bolt as they are more tolerant of hot weather. Second, plant in succession – plant seeds every two weeks so that when one group begins to bolt another will still be growing. And finally, if you live where in an area that does get cool, moist weather, plant cilantro during those cooler seasons – spring, early summer and early fall.
This year, I did have the opportunity to harvest some cilantro leaves before it got hot. I added them to some homemade pico de gallo that we’ve been enjoying as a yummy addition to fajitas.
But over the last several weeks we’ve had some really hot temperatures with dangerous heat indexes and so my cilantro bolted. Below is what it currently looks like – notice the seeds are forming. As I said above, many gardeners will just pull the plants and discard them, but I recommend against that. Let them mature. Keep reading to find out why!
Embrace the Seeds
When your cilantro/coriander does bolt (and it will), don’t despair or give up, because this plant has a lot more to offer. Let the seeds mature on the plant and allow some to self-seed in your garden. You’ll be rewarded with new plants next year just like my friends at the Mexican restaurant.
Next, harvest the rest of the seeds. These are the spice known as coriander, which gives the plant its name. And it tastes completely different from cilantro.
In fact, a lot more people love the taste of coriander. While my dad was not much of a fan of spicy dishes, he did like coriander. I remember my dad making his own sausage when I was a kid and testing the mix of spices that he used. One of those was coriander. He kept adding to his spice mixture until he got the flavor he was looking for.
Coriander is used in many varieties of cooking including Egyptian, Thai, Mexican, Vietnamese, Indian and Chinese.
This spice adds a warm and toasty flavor, which I love in fall and winter dishes. It pairs really well with cumin, curry, cinnamon and chili powder. I especially love cooking with these ‘warming spices’ in winter as they do warm me up when I eat dishes that include them.
So if you are looking at the hard round seeds that coriander produces, you may be wondering how to use them. I use a mortar and pestle to grind them before adding to whatever I am cooking. . If you find it difficult to grind with a mortar and pestle, try grinding in a coffee grinder or in a small food processor.
One of my favorite recipes to make during the winter is a sausage and bean stew. Adding coriander greatly enhances the flavor of this dish.
You may not like the taste of cilantro, but why not give it a try in order to harvest the coriander seeds?
And while cilantro may be frustrating to grow depending on your climate, this plant does have so much to give by providing us with an herb and a spice.
Have you tried growing cilantro/coriander? Comment below and let us know your experiences. We'd love to hear from you.
Happy Gardening and Harvesting.