Yes, You Can Grow Cilantro

Cilantro is a wonderful herb in the kitchen, used in so many different cuisines around the world.   When grown in the best conditions, the lemony pepper flavor of the leaves can be used with vegetables, seafood, meat, soups and sauces.  It seems like cilantro should be an easy to grow, carefree herb that should just be growing abundantly in your garden every single day. 

I always see cilantro plants sold as part of a ‘salsa garden’ mix, planted with tomatoes, hot peppers and tomatillos, but in general, when the peppers and tomatoes are ripe and ready for salsa, the cilantro is either dead or reduced to coriander seed.  We see lots of frustrated gardeners at the nursery in late June and July who can’t understand why they killed their cilantro.  I just want to say “Relax, it’s not you, it’s the heat.” Cilantro is a cool season annual, preferring a bit of humidity and day time temperatures no hotter than the mid 70s or maybe low 80s, with a bit of afternoon shade, some good water, deep rich soil, and plenty of nitrogen fertilizer.  The opposite of sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, lavender – you know, the herbs you grow so easily without even thinking about it in the California heat. Also, cilantro quickly grows because it’s an annual plant which ‘bolts’, manifesting a different frilly leaved foliage that tastes terrible and very quickly produces flowers and then seed.  Fortunately, the seed is edible too!

Cilantro and coriander are different parts of the plant Coriandrum sativum.  It is the perfect plant to describe the definition of an herb versus a spice – The herb cilantro is the leafy, soft aerial part of the plant that is generally used fresh, although it can also be dried.  Coriander is the spice, the seed portion of the plant.  It is used in cooking by drying the seed and roasting, cracking, grinding or powdering it to season meat, rice, soups and even beverages.  Coriander has earthy, citrusy flavor, and many people who do not like the flavor of the leaves (some people get a ‘soapy’ taste from the leaves) love the flavor of coriander.

Once you understand that the needs of cilantro are very different than many herbs we are used to growing, then a few tips can help you extend your cilantro growing season. 

  • First and foremost, plant cilantro in early spring through May, and again beginning in early fall.  Do not plant once temperatures are consistently above 85 degrees.  
  • Plant where there is afternoon shade, or where the cilantro is at least protected from taller plants.
  • Cilantro seeds are large, which is actually helpful for those gardeners who are nervous about planting seed.  Soak the seed in lukewarm water for 15 minutes, then plant seed into small pots with potting soil or directly into the garden, separating the seed by at least ¼ inch and covering the seed with ¼ inch of soil.  Keep the area moist until the seeds germinate, then water deeply, fertilizing lightly every 3 weeks.  For successive harvests seed several new plantings every 2 weeks through mid spring, and again starting in late August for fall growing.
  • If you are starting with transplants, choose small plants and plant immediately as cilantro produces deep taproots which do not like to be disturbed.
  • Amend your soil so it is rich.  Cilantro prefers plenty of organic material, and this is a great time to mix in some extra earth worm castings and amendments.
  • Choose varieties that are slow to bolt.
  • Both in the spring and fall, you can let some of your cilantro go to flower and seed.  You can either let the seed sow itself around your garden or you can harvest the seed when it is mature and let it dry to use as coriander in the kitchen.