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When growing cilantro, you get two appetizing herbs for the price of one: the plant itself is coriander (you may think of it as a spice or seed), and the green leaves and stems are considered cilantro. The leaves, also referred to as Chinese Parsley, are by far the most versatile part of the plant. Many dressings, soups, dips, sides, and meat dishes incorporate this green herb for an instant flavor lift. If you find yourself cooking recipes that call for cilantro or simply like to keep fresh herbs on hand, growing cilantro at home is a smart — not to mention, delicious — investment.
How to Grow Cilantro From Seed
Find a container measuring at least 8 inches deep, or a spare lot of land. Prepare the soil by working compost or organic matter at least 18 inches deep, and then rake smooth. In late spring or fall (before or after the extreme heat hits), plant cilantro seeds 1/4-inch deep and space plants 6 to 8 inches apart. Water the plants well and often, and feed them with a nitrogen fertilizer once they hit 2 inches in height.
Plants will bolt as soon as the days get longer and the temperatures rise, so make sure they’re in a spot with full sun or partial shade, if you live in a particularly hot climate. If there is any danger of frost, protect your cilantro plants with row covers. After about 50 to 55 days, the plant should be at least 6 inches tall and you can start picking the leaves. When harvesting, pick leaves one by one or cut 1/3 of the way down with kitchen or pruning shears, so that the remaining plant can continue to produce cilantro. Cilantro is a short-lived herb, so harvest the leaves once a week to avoid bolting a.k.a. developing seed. Once seeds develop, they’ll self-sow, causing little plants to pop up during the current or following season.
Bonus: If you plant cilantro in pots, you can move them indoors when the weather cools down to harvest more fresh herbs (if you time it right, of course).
Follow these tips to ensure that you properly care for your cilantro plant:
- Timing: Plant cilantro in the late spring (two weeks after the last frost) or early fall to avoid hot temperatures. Cilantro planted during the summer heat will have a bitter flavor, and last for a shorter period of time. Check your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone to find out the optimal time for cilantro planting — gardeners in USDA Zones 8, 9, and 10 should opt for fall sowing, for example.
- Soil and Watering: Cilantro grows best in a neutral soil pH of 6.2 to 6.8, but it’s fairly tolerant and will grow in just about any rich soil. You can find out your soil’s pH levels by completing an at-home soil test. Once your cilantro is planted, make sure the soil is moist yet well-drained.
- Weeds: Mulch around the cilantro plants as soon as they are visible above the soil to prevent weeds. When in doubt, use a weed killer.
- Pests and Diseases: The most common problems for cilantro are fungal wilt, leaf hoppers, aphids, whiteflies, and mildew. Control insects by using antibacterial soap, and clean up debris or dead leaves to combat wilt and mildew.
- Bolting: If you don’t time it right, cilantro can bolt before you have a chance to harvest. To prevent bolting, harvest leaves often, and keep the plant shaded and watered. For a season’s worth of cilantro, stagger plantings every three to four weeks.
How to Store and Use Harvested Cilantro
After your plant bolts, collect any visible coriander seeds and crush them for cooking or baking. If you’d rather save the seeds for another planting, gently crush the coriander seeds to crack the shell and soak them in water overnight. Let the seeds dry completely and plant next season.
Your bounty of cilantro leaves, however, are best when fresh, and should be used at the end of cooking for full flavor. Wrap damp paper towels around fresh cilantro and store in the refrigerator to lengthen it’s shelf-life. If you can’t eat all the cilantro before it turns, trim the individual leaves and stick ’em in a freezer-safe bag before storing in the freezer. For specific measurements, cut the cilantro and store them in an ice cube tray in the freezer. The rest is up to you: Throw it in vinaigrettes, make your own guac, or dress up a basic chicken dish.
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