Cilantro by the Thimbleful
Treat Cilantro Like Lettuce
Thomas Jefferson famously planted a thimbleful of lettuce every Monday, February through September. He did this so he would have a steady supply of one of his favorite leafy greens. Although I have never tried it with lettuce, I have found success trying a modified version of it with cilantro, a pungent herb that I have tried to grow for several years with varying degrees of success. I have finally mastered growing this wonderful plant and am ready to share a few hints.
Cool Roots, Short Life
Cilantro is an herb commonly used in salsas and Mexican dishes. I have found it is one of the trickier herbs to grow. At first, I thought I was doing something wrong, because my plants would never last that long. I would lovingly bring home a start from a nursery or even the grocery store, transplant it into a pot, enjoy leaves for a bit, then it would bolt inexplicably. Bolting is when a plant produces a flowering stem. The bloom eventually turns to seed. Even when I started cilantro from seeds, it would bolt very quickly. I learned that A) cilantro likes its roots to remain below 75° F and B) cilantro just doesn’t have that long of a life-span.
I have grown cilantro in a variety of containers over the years and have placed it in different spots in my yard. Usually, I would plant it in a pot by itself, then give it lots of sunlight, water and love. I like to keep my herbs right out my back door on my deck, which is very sunny and hot in the summer. One summer I moved all of my herbs so that they were under the deck, but near enough to the edge to get sunlight, but not constant sunlight, so they wouldn’t get too hot. All of my herbs did well that summer, so I knew I was onto something. The cilantro grew better than it ever had for me, so I knew that it must like either the shade or cooler temperatures better. However, I found that it still bolted much more easily than the other herbs.
Do you grow herbs at home?
Cilantro that has bolted
Frustrated, I purchased some seeds, planted them in the same pot as I had planted the now-bolted store bought plant, which I yanked out of the soil to make room for the new crop. I watched them germinate quickly. It only took about a week until I saw little green sprouts. After the plant grew a bit, I was able to harvest some sprigs and enjoy them, when lo and behold, they bolted just like the store bought plants! Well, that was all that plant species was going to get of my time and attention for the season, so I just let them bolt and dry to a dim brown. By this time, it was getting late in the season and temperatures were cooling. Some of the seeds dropped, sprouted and germinated, all on their own. Not a single bit of interest from me was needed. It was late October, so I harvested a few leaves and even brought the plants indoors, hoping to extend their life. I was able to get a few weeks out of them, and they didn’t bolt, but they just sort of turned brown and passed away.
The next growing season, I skipped planting cilantro entirely. I felt a plant that would bolt so easily wasn’t worth my effort. But I missed being able to add cilantro to a dish at the last minute, without having to plan for it and purchase it at the store. So, I did some reading up on it and found out that it likes to keep its roots cool. When the roots get to 75 °F, it will automatically bolt. Aha, that answered some questions for me. But I still wondered how I was going to keep them from bolting so soon.
The roots of a cilantro plant
Thomas Jefferson Inspires Me
The answer came to me while I was watching a documentary on the gardens of Thomas Jefferson. This is when I learned that he liked to plant a thimbleful of lettuce seeds every Monday to keep a constant supply available. I realized that I was never going to keep cilantro from having a short life-span, so I better just accommodate it and keep a constant crop sprouting.
Cilantro is an annual. This means that it will go through its entire life cycle, from germination, blooming then turning to seed, in one growing season. It will not die back in the winter and then grow again in the spring. However, it does like to reseed itself. So, when your cilantro bolts, let it. When the seeds are a dried and brown, harvest them and replant them. Harvesting is easiest to do by pulling the whole plant up from the soil, then grasping each branch with a seed head on it and ‘combing’ the seed with your fingers so the seeds fall into your palm. You can also take a brown paper lunch bag, turn the plant upside down in it so the seeds are inside of the bag, then close the bag around the main stem and shake it. The seeds will fall off into the bag. You may need to rub the plant against the sides of the bag while it is in the bag to loosen all of the seeds. When I harvest seeds from a single cilantro plant, it seems that I get just about a thimbleful of seeds each time, which is what made me think of Thomas Jefferson.
I replant seeds about every three weeks or so. I staggered my initial plantings so I always have some new cilantro sprouting. It is so tasty to add a fresh dash of it as a garnish. Using this method, I have a steady stream of cilantro all season long.With a grateful nod to Thomas Jefferson!
More on Thomas Jefferson's Gardens
Great kitchen shears for a quick herbal snip!
A great deal on ceramic pots
Use the large pot for cilantro, then plant other herbs, which don't have to keep their roots as cool, in the other two pots.