Inch by Inch: Bringing in the sheaves ... before they bolt

Posted Wednesday, August 1, 2012 in Sustainable Maine

Inch by Inch: Bringing in the sheaves ... before they bolt

Lettuce bolting in a bed.

It may be a bit hard to keep it all in mind, especially when things are coming in fast and furious, as they are and will do for the next month or so, but certain things need constant attention if they are going to be useable. 

Lettuce, cabbage, rhubarb, celery, beets, and a few other plants (including many herbs), will "bolt".  This means they begin to form a flower stalk, then set flowers and seeds.  Once this happens, the leaves and stalks become bitter and tough.  Some herbs are useful as seed - for instance, cilantro grows up to be coriander seed, and is perfectly fine, but if you're looking for something to put into the guacamole, you've missed the boat. Celery seed can also be used in cooking, so if your celery goes, save the seed.

No one is entirely sure what triggers a plant to bolt, but there is some thought that it might have to do with how much light a plant gets in the summer ... the more light, the more likely the plant is to bolt.  You can shade your possible bolting plants with a tarp if we're having a particularly rain-free summer, like this year.  Try growing your lettuce and celery in adjacent beds so they can share a tarp next year.

But for this year, you can nip the bolting business in the bud if you're paying attention.  If a plant begins to set flowers, pinch the flowers off.  Make sure the plant is not stressed ... it will want to continue its asexual lifestyle unless it is under stress, so make sure it's well watered, gets regular compost tea, and feels very comfortable in its own cell wall. 

Cut the plants you intend to use regularly.  It's okay to sacrifice a small, tender head of lettuce even if it isn't fully grown, and it's fine to use young celery stalks.  Their flavor is slightly more intense, but that's really okay. 

For your herbs, cut and dry them regularly if you plan to use them in the winter, or, in the case of basil, make your pesto and freeze it in small plastic bags or an ice cube tray. 

For the root veggies that are likely to bolt, bend the green stalk of the plant and let the bulbs grow quietly underground. 

If you have a few plants you'd like to propagate, say, rhubarb beyond its best season, which is early spring, go ahead and let them bolt and set seed, but move the seeds to where you want them to come up next year before they drop from the plants.

The key to this is to check your crops daily, and in August, maybe even twice a day.  It's time for plants to begin their reproductive cycle, something we celebrate in our fruiting crops, and our stalk, leaf and root crops don't understand that they're being problematic. 

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