Small space gardening

Mother Nature’s timing in the garden isn’t the greatest when it comes to the herb/veggie team of cilantro and tomatoes. They’re a match made in heaven (think peanut butter and chocolate), but cilantro is a spring producer, and tomatoes aren’t generally ready until mid-summer in zone 5. So for those gardeners out there who love to make fresh salsa with cilantro as an ingredient, I feel your frustration. Cilantro is a dried-up hot mess by the time tomatoes ripen.

Thankfully, I’ve discovered a couple of ways to work around these poorly orchestrated harvest times. One easy, cost-free way is to “assist” your cilantro in re-seeding in mid- to late summer in order to have a second batch while tomatoes are producing. My cilantro re-seeded on its own one summer, and I’ve been encouraging the process every year since.

Here’s what cilantro looks like in the early spring.

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Cilantro is a cool-weather crop. That is, when the heat kicks in, it poops out. The nice full leaves shown in the photo above will start to develop into a lacy, thinner leaf when it starts to get hot, and the stems will begin to thicken as in the photo below. The plant will also grow taller very quickly (called bolting). Many plants will bolt when they’re stressed due to heat or lack of water.

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Here’s another comparison of the leaves before and after cilantro bolts. You can eat the lacy leaves, but they’re bitter.

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It’s hard to believe the last two photos are the same plant only a few weeks apart. Cilantro will also develop dainty white flowers after it bolts. I guess the flowers are some consolation for losing the plant as an edible! It has a Queen Anne’s Lace appearance when in full bloom.

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Cilantro then starts to dry out and get a little ugly. Okay. The truth. It gets real ugly. It looks like a dead plant, which it actually is, but let it be and you’ll be rewarded!

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After the flowering is finished, seeds known as the spice coriander, will form. They’ll be green in the beginning.

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Then they’ll slowly start to turn brown. They generally get to this stage by July or August in zone 5, depending on the weather.

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It’s at this stage, the seeds can be collected and used as coriander if that’s a spice you like to use.  Or they can be scattered for a late summer/fall harvest. The easiest way I’ve found to do this is to leave the dead-looking plants in the ground as they are (or in their container if that’s how you choose to grow your herbs), and I place the stems with the seeds on them, between my palms. I rub my hands together as if I’m trying to warm them up, and this will twist the seeds off the stems, dropping them onto the ground. Then I pull the remaining dry, seedless plants from the ground and compost them.

Another way to do this is to simply pull up the plants and give them a good shake, and many of the seeds will fall off onto the ground. I’ve tried both ways, but prefer the first method because if you pull up the plant and shake the seeds off, it’s harder to control where the seeds will drop. In addition, not as many seeds will come off the plant this way.

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I work the seeds into the soil, breaking up any clumps, press the soil lightly so there’s good seed to soil contact, water daily and wait for them to germinate. The looser the soil is, the better your chances are of the seeds germinating. Speaking from experience, this doesn’t work well if the soil has compacted over the course of the summer and you just throw the seeds on top of the soil.

I typically scatter the seeds in my garden in early to mid-August, or wait for a stretch of somewhat cooler weather even as late as mid-September.  The cilantro is up and usable within two to three weeks. Since our average first frost comes around mid-October, and cilantro can handle hard frost, this gives me a whopping 2 to 3 months more of cilantro! It will usually survive until the ground actually freezes. Some of the buried seeds will sleep through the winter and surprise me in the spring if I don’t disturb the soil, and if I keep my current space reserved for cilantro.

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Another way to be assured of having cilantro when the tomatoes finally make their appearance is to freeze your spring crop, leaving some in the garden to bolt if you want to re-seed some. I’ll bet you’re thinking, “It won’t be the same.” The truth is, it’s not the same, but it’s surprisingly close!

Cilantro is so amazing when it’s fresh, that freezing those delicate little leaves would seemingly turn it into a disappointing mush pile.  But if it’s blanched first, it holds its texture without turning into mush. Don’t stop reading now. It’s easy. Really.

To blanch and freeze cilantro, boil an inch or two of water in a large skillet. I think a skillet works best because the cilantro can be spread out and will lay flat, and it’s easier to remove if it all stays running the same direction. It’s also easier to see in an open skillet. Add cilantro to the boiling water for a few seconds–just until it almost starts to wilt and turns a beautiful, deep green color. Remove the cilantro (tongs work well) from the boiling water, and plunge it immediately into a pan of ice water to stop it from cooking.

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I arrange it in a single layer in a Ziplock bag. I remove the air from the bag, seal it and put it in the freezer. The leaves can be removed from the stems before you blanch if you don’t like the stems, but I prefer to leave the cilantro intact and then chop it up, stems and all, when I’m ready to use it. Bonus–It chops easily when it’s frozen.

It’s great for soups and stews in the winter, and frozen cilantro retains much more of it’s flavor than dried cilantro.

The moral of the story is don’t give up on planting cilantro because its early spring life seems short-lived. It actually does better in the fall, depending on our unpredictable Midwest weather, of course. Leave a designated space in your herb garden for it and not only will you be rewarded twice a year, but it’ll be there to greet you in early spring when it re-seeds itself.

I hope you found this post helpful! If you have an interest in home organization, DIY home improvement projects or redesign, please feel free to visit my other blog at https://HomeStagingBloomingtonIl.wordpress.com.

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