I THINK IT’S TIME we have a talk about cilantro. This popular herb is quite possibly the most misunderstood crop in the vegetable garden. If you’ve ever said something like, “I can’t grow cilantro. Whenever I try, it bolts right away!” you’re not alone. Many people have a hard time growing cilantro, and some have given up entirely. But all is not lost. With a little bit of planning, it’s possible to harvest perfect cilantro from the garden virtually any time of year.

Like basil and dill, cilantro is an annual herb, meaning that it needs to be replanted in the garden every year. It’s important to note that plants categorized as herbs come in all shapes and sizes. Being an herb has much more to do with how the plant is used in the kitchen than how the plant grows in the garden. Herbs can be large, woody perennials; herbaceous perennials; biennials; or annuals. The life span of any species depends largely on the climate, but cilantro is a particularly peculiar case because of its surprisingly short productive life in just about every climate.


So, you’re not alone when your cilantro bolts, because cilantro always bolts, even under ideal conditions. It should provide some level of relief to most gardeners that fast-bolting cilantro is not an indication that you did something wrong; it’s simply the inevitable growth habit of the crop.

Cilantro grows like a short-lived annual vegetable crop, similar to lettuce and arugula. Given its short life span and predilection to bolting, cilantro grows best from seed. Even though most garden nurseries sell transplants in 4-inch pots, you’re much better off picking up a packet of seed and sowing it directly in the garden. When selecting seeds, look for a variety labeled as “slow bolting.” (It probably would be more accurate to say “slower bolting,” because no matter what variety you select, it’ll still bolt relatively quickly.)

Cilantro seed is huge, so it’s very easy to see how thick and how evenly you’ve seeded it. It’s best to seed wide and short rows of cilantro; an average planting might be a row about 2 inches wide and 12 inches long. These short rows should be seeded frequently and consistently to ensure a steady supply of the crop. If you want usable cilantro from the garden all season, direct-seed a 12-inch row every one to two weeks.


Even though the mature plant is very tolerant of cold weather and can survive light frosts, cilantro does not germinate well in cold soil, so start seeding in midspring once soil temperatures are above 50 degrees and continue all the way through early fall, coinciding with your last plantings of salad greens. Here in Zone 8a, this is usually around mid-September. Surprisingly, these late season plantings often will last throughout the winter and into early spring, the only time of year when the crop holds well in the garden.

During the spring and summer, it’s important to cut the leaves down as soon as they’ve reached harvestable size. The leaves won’t hold long in the garden, so once the plants have reached about 5 to 8 inches tall, cut them down to 1-inch stems with scissors or a sharp knife. If harvested at this stage, the stems will send up a new flush of leaves. A healthy planting of cilantro should yield two or three cuttings before the plants are too stressed to produce new, healthy leaves. Remove the planting immediately after the third cutting to make room for a new crop in the garden.

You should cut cilantro plants as soon as they are ready for harvest, even if you don’t think you’ll be able to use all of the leaves immediately. They’ll often store longer in the fridge than in the garden. By harvesting leaves at their peak, you’ll set up the plants to begin growing another flush of leaves. For continual cilantro harvest, it’s actually better to harvest leaves and compost them (if you can’t use them all) than to leave them on the plants. If left more than a few days, they will bolt, ruining your chances for a good second or third growth from the planting.

If you’re succession-planting cilantro through the season, you might choose to let one or more of your plantings flower and go to seed. The flowers are beautiful and great for attracting beneficial insects to the garden. As you might know, the seed is used in the kitchen as coriander.

To get a year’s supply of coriander seed, simply let a few plantings bolt, flower and set seed. The coriander seed is ready to harvest when the plants have turned brown and the seed fully dried. The entire life cycle from direct seeding to coriander harvest should be about three months.

In short, to go from a no-grow to cilantro pro grower: Select a slower bolting variety, direct-seed into the garden, succession short rows every one to two weeks, harvest often and let several plantings bolt for a bonus crop of coriander.