What does it mean for a Plant to “Bolt?”

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All of a sudden, your lettuce starts growing taller and taller. Your onions develop these pregnant tips, which soon burst into flowers. Some of your herbs develop a tall stalk and the leaves turn bitter. What is going on? Your plant is bolting.

What does it mean for a plant to bolt?

Like His other creations, God has wired in plants the ability and purpose to reproduce. With fruiting plants (tomatoes, squash, watermelon to name a few), this reproduction occurs in the obvious place: the fruit.

But what about plants that don’t produce fruit like broccoli, lettuce, and herbs? What about plants like onions and carrots that don’t produce seeds within a fruit? How do they reproduce?

For most of them, their reproduction comes in the form of flowers.

If you’re saving seeds, this is important, but if you’re not, why does this matter, you wonder?

When the plant goes into reproduction mode, it affects the part you eat.

Let’s back up and I’ll explain the flowering process. When a non-fruiting plant is growing it produces what you want to eat, usually in the form of leaves. But when the plant becomes stressed, either due to hot weather (for cool crops), a drastic change in moisture stress, or simply the end of its life cycle, its energy turns from producing a quality product for us to eat to putting its efforts into producing flowers.

You’ll know this is happening when the plant starts to send up a tall stalk. Left to do its thing, this stalk will eventually form flowers. These flowers produce seeds, and allowed to finish the cycle, will ensure another generation of plants.

Carrot going to seed | Journey with Jill
This is a carrot bolting, or going to seed. It has grown about 4 feet high and is producing flowers. Left to complete its cycle, a new generation of baby carrots will grow soon.

It’s imperative for a gardener to keep an eye on these types of plants because when this flower stalk begins to form, it’s called “bolting.”

Lettuce, cilantro, and spinach leaves become too bitter to eat. Onion bulbs cease growing and they lose their ability to store once harvested. Carrots lose their sweetness. Basil leaves become less flavorful. Emerging broccoli heads turn into flowers themselves.

In many ways, this is good. I’ve had carrots, dill, and basil growing on their own, season after season, for years. These flowers also attract beneficial insects to the garden.

I always let my bolted onions stay in my garden as long as possible. I always seem to find beneficial insects surrounding them.
I always let my bolted onions stay in my garden as long as possible. I always seem to find beneficial insects surrounding them.

But when plants bolt, their usability almost always stops. Unless you like the taste of bitter.

If you’re short on space and need it to put in another more productive crop, it’s time to pull it up. But if you’re like me and can spare the space, let the seeds fall where they may and begin the reproduction cycle again. It’s really a beautiful thing.

Basil going to seed | Journey with Jill
You can see the basil beginning to bolt by at the center of the leaves. In order to harvest high-quality basil leaves all summer, clip the leaves as I show here. If you want to let your basil go to seed and reproduce, let it be. Bees in particular love basil flowers.
Dill going to seed
When dill goes to seed, its a little more forgiving, as you can harvest the bushy dill leaves as long as they still remain on the plant. Dill seeds start to form in the flowers you see here, which can be harvested for recipes calling for dill seed.


Cilantro going to seed | Journey with Jill
On the left you can see my cilantro bolting, or going to seed. On the right is parsley, with a similar growth habit but not bolting yet.

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  1. Are you an Organic gardener? I know that every living thing is considered organic in nature. What I’m asking, is are you using Certified Organic seeds, soil, etc.?

    1. I use organic gardening practices in my garden. I don’t use only *certified organic seed or solely *certified organic products, but I also don’t add non-organic fertilizers or pesticides.

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