Even though we are still in the winter months, now is the right time to plant cool weather herbs. The most popular of these is cilantro (Coriandrum sativum), the source of flavor for many Southwestern dishes such as pico de gallo, tacos, burritos, and…just about anything Tex-Mex.
Unlike heat-loving basil, another herb annual, cilantro is happy germinating in cool weather. For those of us living in the southern U.S. this means we need to treat it like a two-season annual.
The first season for cilantro begins in late February. Planting it now means you will be harvesting flavorful leaves during the warming spring days. Then when temperatures begin to exceed 90 degrees it switches gears, sets seed, and dies. You may have heard some gardeners call this “bolting”. By the Fourth of July it is ready to be pulled up and discarded. then after the heat of summer is past (about Labor Day), you can plant cilantro again for a second season of flavor.
Buying the Right Cilantro For You
To maximize the amount of harvest from your young herbs look for “slow-bolt” varieties, which will increase production by two to three weeks. Recent introductions include ‘Calypso’ and ‘Marino’ cilantro. If you prefer a milder flavor in your foods, look for ‘Confetti’ cilantro which also has more finely divided leaves.
When purchasing cilantro at the local nursery, take care not to confuse this herb with culantro (Eryngium foetidum), a Caribbean herb with prickly, strap-shaped leaves and a flavor similar to but definitely stronger than cilantro. You won’t be happy with the results – trust me.
Growing Cilantro From Seed
Cilantro seeds can be sown in late winter directly in the soil where you want them. Allow two weeks for seeds to germinate. Thin seedlings so they are 8 to10 inches apart. Whether you buy plants or seeds, take care to avoid damage to the central taproot if you transplant them. Cilantro is in the same family as carrots and will not be happy if it loses its central root. Water regularly and fertilize about every six weeks to encourage healthy growth.
You can begin harvesting cilantro about five weeks after transplanting. Leaves are clipped from the outer area of the plant to allow the inner core to mature. Continue harvesting until the central flower stalk appears. Once that happens, the leaves become less flavorful.
Even though our gardens are still cold and mostly dormant, it’s time to start thinking about spring. Next chance you get, buy some cilantro seeds or plants and get your herb garden going now.