I love cilantro and I plant it every year. It is easy to grow from seed although one can find small plants at local nurseries. Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is a member of the carrot family. Because of its tap root, it is best to sow seeds directly in the garden bed or in a container. Often called Chinese parsley, the leaves do look like parsley but if you rub the foliage you will smell a citrusy/woodsy scent.
In the beginning of April, I sow the seed in the ground and in containers on the deck. In early spring, this particular patch in the ground and the containers are in full sun. The seeds germinate in a week to 10 days. The plant grows to about one foot tall and the leaves are broad with scalloped edges. In late April and early May, I harvest the foliage for a variety of dishes. We like to use fresh cilantro for beef empanadas, fried rice, enchiladas, tacos, and salsa.
By late May, beginning of June, the leaves alter their shape to be thin, finely dissected, and lacy. Flower stalks emerge and small white flowers appear. Soon the plant sets seed, which are small, tan balls. These are known as coriander. I clip these off and put in a paper bag to sow next year. Although they are a spice that can be used in the kitchen, I tend to save them to sow again.
Because my original spring cilantro plants have expired before summer tomatoes have even appeared, I sow seeds again. However, cilantro is a cool season annual. For these plants to grow in Virginia’s hot summer, I have to change the environmental conditions to mimic spring.
Cilantro likes cool temperatures and relatively moist soil. This happens naturally in the spring, but in the summer, that means I need to provide morning sun and afternoon shade or dappled shade. This will decrease the summer’s heat. The soil needs to drain well yet be high in organic matter. If it does not rain for a while, I will have to water the plants with a hose. I have to constantly be aware of soil moisture and rain.
In the summer, I sow the seeds in a different place in the garden, a place with afternoon shade. If one cannot provide shade, consider buying a shade cloth or grow in containers that can be placed under trees. I also sow the seeds in containers on the deck where there is a tree because it is easier (i.e., takes less time) to walk out on to the deck from the kitchen door and monitor the plants. It takes more time to walk into the garden so I do both in case I get too busy. Gardening is a gamble; it is a high stakes game. The more you sow in a variety of places, the higher the likelihood that something will germinate and grow so you can enjoy the harvest.
I sow seeds every few weeks. With the high summer temperatures, the plants will bolt even quicker than in the spring. Thus, I have a narrow window of opportunity to harvest leaves from a planting.
One trick to having fresh cilantro all summer long is to continue to sow the seeds in as cool a place as you can manage. Another trick is to use varieties that are known to be slower to bolt. They will still bolt but you may be able to delay it a few weeks. Try Santo, Caribe, Calypso, Slo Bolt, Leisure, or Longstanding. You may have to order the seed packets online; it is likely your local nursery will not carry these. Check out these seed companies.
Some people get tired of this real quick and just give up during the summer. This is fine too; it does take more time and diligence to grow cilantro in the summer. Remember though that fall conditions are like spring, cool and moist. Try sowing seeds in September to have foliage in the fall. Because cilantro is resistant to a light frost, you can sow seeds every few weeks and then protect with a row cover, low tunnel, or a cold frame to harvest up until the holidays.
In the DC metro area, one can continue to purchase small cilantro transplants at local nurseries to plant in the garden. You can also purchase fresh cilantro at many grocery stores in this area. I like a challenge, though, and I like to be able to walk out to the garden and snip fresh cilantro whenever I need it. Try growing cilantro from seed this year.