Cilantro is a fast-growing and highly fragrant herb. It has one of those love it or hate it flavors and is often the star of Mexican and East Asian cooking (not to mention salsa).
It’s easy to grow cilantro in your garden, although it has a short season of growth because it bolts quickly in hot weather. You can get around this by planting it during your cool season or planting it multiple times to have a steady crop.
Here’s a guide to planting and growing cilantro seeds as well as tips for managing common problems.
What is Cilantro?
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is an aromatic herb that belongs to the carrot family (Apiaceae). It’s closely related to other herbs like parsley and dill and originates from the Mediterranean region and North Africa.
Grown as an annual, cilantro will grow in USDA hardiness zones 2-11. In northern areas, it’s typically a spring and/or fall crop. In mild climates, it’s best grown over the winter months.
Cilantro produces bright green leaves that look almost exactly like parsley leaves. Plants typically grow about a foot tall but can reach up to two feet. They bloom with flat umbels that are white or light pink.
Cilantro is a popular herb used frequently in Mexican and East Asian cooking. You can easily grow it in your garden as long as you plant and grow it during cool weather.
One of the benefits of growing cilantro is that it produces quickly. You can often start harvesting the leaves in under a month.
Cilantro vs. Coriander
In most of the rest of the world, the cilantro plant is referred to as coriander. In a way, it’s two herbs in one because both the leaves and the seeds are used for cooking and have their own unique flavor.
Typically in the Americas, the leaves of the plant are referred to as ‘cilantro,’ and the seeds are called ‘coriander.’ They both come from the same plant but have distinctly different culinary uses.
Cilantro is used fresh in things like salsa or added at the very end of a cooked dish so that its flavor isn’t lost. Coriander is considered a spice and is often roasted and ground for more flavor. It’s used in things like curry powder.
Both are good for you and can add a lot of flavor with just a small amount.
Coriander comes from the seeds of the cilantro plant. It has its own flavor that’s distinctly different from cilantro and can be harvested off of your plants after they flower and go to seed.
Cilantro: Tasty or Soapy?
It’s not unusual for an herb or a vegetable to divide people on whether it tastes good or not (beets, for example, can be very divisive), but cilantro is somewhat unique.
While many people enjoy the flavor and pile it on their food, others claim that it tastes soapy. No one is sure exactly why this is, but some research indicates that it may be due to genetics. People either like it or they don’t, and the ones that don’t aren’t likely to change their minds.
Interestingly, coriander has its own distinct flavor and can be enjoyed by people who dislike cilantro.
Varieties of Cilantro Seeds
Often, you’ll just see a seed packet labeled as “Cilantro” without any cultivar listed.
However, it’s worth looking into the different varieties because a few have been developed to bolt more slowly and give you a longer harvest time. Others flower prolifically, in case you want to grow cilantro for the seeds.
Here are a few to consider:
- ‘Slow Bolt’– The name of this one says it all. This cultivar was specifically cultivated to slow the normally quick bolting habit of cilantro and give you more time to harvest the leaves.
Most people want to grow cilantro for the leaves rather than the seeds, so choosing a variety that is slow to bolt is a must. Otherwise, you’ll spend all your time trying to keep your plants from flowering once warm weather comes.
- ‘Long Standing’– This variety is also slower to bolt and will grow even in poor conditions. It can get 2 feet or taller in height.
- ‘Leisure’– Another good, slow-bolting cultivar with good flavor and uniform growth.
- ‘Calypso’– One of the slowest cilantros to bolt in trials, ‘Calypso’ gets very full and bushy with lots of leaves.
- ‘Confetti’– A unique variety with fern-like foliage instead of the normal parsley-like leaves. Still has the familiar, strong cilantro flavor.
How to Plant and Grow Cilantro Seeds
Cilantro is very easy to grow from seed, and this is the preferred method of many gardeners. You can plant the seeds straight in your garden or start them earlier indoors.
When to Plant Cilantro Seeds
Timing is everything when it comes to cilantro. It needs cool weather to grow in, or it will bolt and lose its flavor before you can harvest very much.
The ideal growing temperature for cilantro is in a range around 70°F. It likes it cool but is also sensitive to a hard frost.
Plant your seeds after the danger of frost has passed but not too long afterwards, or it will be too warm for your plants to grow properly. You can also start cilantro in summer for a fall harvest or grow it over the winter if you live in a mild climate.
If you live in a region with cold winters, the best time to plant is in early spring for a spring/summer harvest or in late summer for a fall harvest. If you live somewhere with mild winters, plant your seeds in the fall so that you can harvest over the winter.
To get a continuous harvest, you should stagger your plantings. Sow seeds every week or two while the cool weather lasts.
You should pick a spot for your cilantro that gets full sun. The plants can tolerate some afternoon shade and may prefer it when the weather starts getting hot.
Cilantro grows best in well-drained soil and will struggle or bolt quickly in poor draining or soggy conditions. It can grow even in poor soil, but mixing in some compost or well-rotted manure before planting will make your plants happier.
You can also grow cilantro in pots filled with a good quality potting soil. Make sure there are holes drilled in the bottom to ensure good drainage. Cilantro does develop a long taproot, so don’t plant it in very shallow containers.
It’s best to plant cilantro in a designated spot if you have it in your garden because it will self-sow and reappear next year.
You can grow cilantro either in the ground or in containers. If you choose to grow it in pots, make sure you pick ones that are a good 6-8 inches deep to allow room for the taproot to grow.
Starting Cilantro Seeds Outdoors
Starting your seeds outdoors, also known as direct sowing, is the preferred method for cilantro. It grows quickly and develops a taproot that doesn’t always transplant well.
To start with, you should prepare your planting area before putting your seeds out. Weed the area and get rid of any rocks and debris. Then, rake out the surface of the soil so that it’s smooth for planting.
Cilantro seeds should be planted ¼-½ inch deep.and about 4-6 inches apart. If you want to plant in rows, space them 6-12 inches apart.
Water the area where you planted seeds well and keep it consistently moist until the seeds germinate. Germination usually occurs in 7-10 days.
Each cilantro “seed” is actually made up of two individual seeds that are attached to one another, so don’t be surprised if you see more than one seedling come up where you planted a seed.
Once seedlings are a few inches tall, you can thin out the extra ones and eat them!
Starting Cilantro Seeds Indoors
To start cilantro seeds indoors, you’ll want to sow them about 2 weeks before your last average frost date in spring, or 2-3 weeks before you plan to plant them in summer or fall.
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Cilantro doesn’t always transplant well because of the taproot it develops. You can either start more plants than you need to make up for any that don’t do well, or start them in biodegradable pots that can be planted directly in the ground.
Either way, make sure you use a good quality seed starting mix and get it damp before you fill up your seed trays or pots.
Sow one seed per pot or cell at a depth of ¼-½ inch. Water your newly planted seeds and place them somewhere with a temperature around 70°F. If you have them, cover your trays with plastic domes to keep the soil moist while they germinate.
You should see seedlings popping up in 7-10 days. Remove the domes if you have them on, and move your seedlings under grow lights or by a sunny window.
Keep your seedlings watered as they grow, but don’t let the soil get soggy. Running a fan a few times a day will help keep your plants healthier by providing good air circulation.
A week before you plan to plant, harden your cilantro seedlings off by taking them outside during the day and bringing them back in at night. Then, plant them in your garden at a spacing of at least 4-6 inches.
Caring for Your Cilantro Plants
Cilantro plant care is pretty simple. Give your seedlings plenty of water as they get established, but grown plants will only need watered during long dry spells.
Watering your seedlings as they get established is important because their root systems are not very deep. Once plants grow, they will put roots down deeper into the soil and will rarely need watered unless you’re growing them in pots.
Fertilizing isn’t necessary, but if you want to increase your yield, apply a nitrogen fertilizer around your plants once or twice during the growing season. Nitrogen encourages the production of more foliage.
Applying mulch once the weather turns hot will help shield the roots of your plants and keep them cooler. It will also keep weeds at a more manageable level.
The biggest maintenance with cilantro is to keep plants from flowering as long as you can so that you can keep harvesting the leaves. Start pinching or cutting your plants when they get 4-6 inches tall to encourage them to grow bushier.
Whenever you see a flower starting to form on the main stem, clip it back to the leaves. Eventually, you can let the plants flower and drop seeds that will grow into new plants.
Pests and Problems
Cilantro is rarely affected by pests or diseases. It grows quickly and is usually done producing leaves before anything has the chance to bother it.
In fact, letting cilantro flower will attract beneficial insects like hoverflies and predatory wasps that can repel pests like aphids. Planting it around your garden can be an effective and natural pest-control method.
Cilantro can actually look quite pretty when it flowers and will attract pollinators and other beneficial insects. If you leave the plants to go to seed after flowering, you can collect it and cook with it.
Occasionally, cilantro will be affected by fungal diseases like powdery mildew or leaf spot. These usually occur in humid conditions, so the best prevention is to space plants further apart and make sure they don’t get overwatered.
Stop that Bolting
In the plant world, bolting means that a vegetable or herb flowers too quickly. For cilantro, when the plants bolt, the leaves quickly lose their flavor and start turning yellow.
Bolting is something to look out for in many different plants, but cilantro is especially known to bolt quickly in hot weather. It can be frustrating to just start harvesting leaves off your plants only to have them flower and stop producing.
The best way to keep your plants from bolting too quickly is to buy varieties that are slow-bolt and to make sure you grow cilantro during cool weather. You can also plant multiple crops every few weeks so that even if your plants do bolt, you’ll have new ones popping up.
How to Harvest Cilantro Leaves
You can start harvesting cilantro not long after planting it, when plants are about 6 inches tall. At first, you’ll only want to take a few stems from each plant, but you can work up to taking more as plants get bigger.
Harvesting cilantro is incredibly easy. All you have to do is snip or pinch off stems at the ground whenever you want some of the fresh herb for cooking. At the end of the season, you can do a major harvest and cut off whatever is left of the plant.
To harvest, use scissors, garden clippers, or even your fingers to clip or pinch whole stems off. Cut them as close to ground level as you can and always leave ½-⅔ of the plant intact to keep growing.
Give your plants at least a few days between major harvests to give them time to recover.
How to Harvest Cilantro Seeds (Coriander)
To harvest cilantro seeds (coriander), you’ll need to let your plants flower and develop seed heads. Once the seed heads start turning brown you can clip them off your plants.
Place the seed heads upside down in a paper bag with ventilation holes. Let them continue to dry until the seeds fall off. You can then sort the seeds from the rest of the debris and store them in an airtight container.
How to Store Cilantro
Cilantro has the best flavor when it’s fresh and does not dry or store well. Try to harvest it right before you want to use it. You can also store it for about 5-7 days in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator.
Coriander seeds are easy to dry and can be stored for a year or two, but cilantro leaves are best used fresh.
To store it in your refrigerator, just wrap the fresh cilantro in a damp paper towel and place it in a plastic bag before putting it in the fridge.
Coriander can be stored in an airtight plastic or glass container and kept in a dark place away from heat. Try roasting it before you use it to bring out the flavor.
Enjoying Your Harvest
If you love the taste of fresh cilantro, adding a few plants to your garden will give you the freshest herbs possible. As an added bonus, you can also grow it for coriander seeds and add them to your spice cupboard.
If growing cilantro gets you thinking about having a whole herb garden, try one of its cousin plants, parsley, or another Mediterranean native like oregano or thyme.