Cilantro is an herb used in Mexican, Asian, and Middle-Eastern cuisines. As a member of the parsley family, this herb is a fast-growing plant with flat broad leaves. The taste of cilantro is lemony with a hint of pepper, although, interestingly, some people describe it as tasting like soap. When you buy fresh cilantro from the store, it tends to go bad before you can use up the large bunch. Growing it at home means you can have just as much as you need on hand whenever a recipe calls for it.
The seed pots of the cilantro are a spice in and of themselves — coriander seed! Each pod holds two smaller seeds. Before planting, gently crush the husk and soak the seeds for a couple of days. Plant each seed approximately 8 inches apart and cover with a quarter-inch of soil. Allowing the plant space will promote initial leaf growth. Over time, the plants will fill in this space, creating some much-needed shade for the stem and root system.
While cilantro grows best outdoors, it is possible to nurture healthy, vibrant plants inside, too. Cilantro needs lots of sunlight, but cool temperatures. This means, inside or out, mid-day heat may be too much for this plant, which will cause it to bolt — this means it will flower, go to seed, and lose its flavor.
Cilantro thrives when soil temperatures stay below 75 degrees. For hot southern climates, temperate seasons like spring or fall will provide the best conditions for growing.
If you have limited garden space, you can grow cilantro in a pot. Choose one that is both deep and wide. A container that is approximately 18 inches wide and 10 inches deep will offer enough space to grow at least two plants together. Remember to situate the container in an area that gets sun, but where the soil will be able to maintain a cooler temperature. Because it has less soil, potted plants will naturally be warmer and drier and may require extra care.
A loamy, quick-draining soil mixture is ideal for finicky cilantro. This can be mixed into the existing earth outside. To ensure that the soil stays cool and moist, spread a layer of mulch on top. If you're using a pot or planter, spread a layer of gravel or stone below the dirt prior to planting, or choose a pot that has a drainage hole. This will help prevent over-watering.
The perfect amount of water for a cilantro plant is not an exact science. Heat, soil type, and environmental differences all affect moisture levels. Seeds should be kept moist during the germination process. Once the plant has begun to grow, aim for approximately 1 inch of water per week. An established plant will require less moisture, but be sure to keep the soil damp.
Like so many herbs, cilantro can grow new roots in a couple of weeks if the stems are placed in fresh water. Once roots have formed, place it in a pot or the garden to continue growth.
Cilantro plants also produce a lot of seeds at the end of their growing cycle. Once the plant has flowered, seeds will form and the leaves will no longer be as flavorful. This is the perfect time to harvest the seeds. You can plant them right away, or save them for the next growing season.
Cilantro is susceptible to powdery mildew, a white fungus the coasts the leaves and stem of plants when moisture stays on the leaves for too long. The best technique to avoid this is to add moisture at the dirt level, instead of overhead watering or misting.
This powdery substance does not wash off and can make the plant less productive and less flavorful. At the first sign of mildew, remove the affected portions. Sparingly spraying garlic or baking soda and water can help prevent spread.
As any gardener knows, insects can be a headache. Cilantro can fall victim to aphids that eat away at the plant, impairing leaf quality and even affecting growth. If you see bugs on your cilantro plant, remove them where possible, and spray an insecticidal soap that's approved for edible plants.
As with all plants, fertilizer can make a big difference between a mediocre cilantro harvest and an excellent one. Every couple of weeks, add some nitrogen fertilizer to the water to give the plants a boost. Be aware that fertilizer can burn or even kill plants in high doses, so don't overuse it, and cut back if you see adverse signs.
What do we grow herbs and vegetables for if not the eventual harvest? Expect to begin cropping leaves from your cilantro plant after approximately 4 weeks of growth. Trimming the top of the cilantro to prevent flowering will extend the growing period. Start by removing the larger leaves here and there, as needed. Taking only leaves and not stems will ensure your plant still has lots of surface area to develop more throughout the season.
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