How I Deal with ‘Bolting’ Crops in My Garden

Preventing bolting will extend your harvest, but there are times when early flowering and going to seed can be beneficial.
Dill umbrellas. Dill blossom.
Dill that has flowered and is going to seed. Ekaterina savyolova / Getty Images

If you are unfamiliar with the term, "bolting" is the name given to the phenomenon when plants rush prematurely to flower and set seed. Bolting is, in essence, the process of plants hurrying to enter the reproductive phase of their growth. 

In the case of certain crops in your garden, bolting can be undesirable because this brings an end to productive harvest from the plant. Oftentimes, plants flowering and going to seed early is something that we wish to avoid. 
However, when dealing with bolting crops in my garden, I also recognize that there are times when a plant rushing to flower and set seed early is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, we can take advantage of this phenomenon and gain from it. 
So when I am dealing with bolting crops in my garden, the first thing that I always have to ask myself is whether or not this will be beneficial. The answer, of course, will depend on which plants we are looking at. 

When Bolting is Undesirable

When bolting is not something that we want, because it will lead to the end of the harvesting period, the first thing that we need to think about is why the plants bolt in the first place, and what we might do to prevent this from happening. 
Plants that we do not want to bolt include:
  • lettuces
  • spinach
  • various leafy herbs used for culinary purposes. 
Bolting generally occurs in the first place due to a sudden change in the environment. Commonly, it can be caused by a sudden cold spell or sudden high temperatures. 
Changes in day length and light levels can also initiate this behavior. Likewise, when plants are under stress, due to water shortage, for example, this can also lead them to bolt prematurely. 
So preventing bolting can involve providing shelter and cover of some kind if a cold snap threatens and providing shade and good ventilation during the heat. Simple steps like these can help to keep these kinds of crops tasting good for longer. 
When we choose to sow and plant out is also important. Timing things correctly can help you to make sure that your plants will not bolt too early and deprive you of a worthwhile harvest.

When Bolting is Less of an Issue

The truth of the matter is that with many different crops, bolting is not really an issue. While some plants like lettuce and spinach will taste more bitter after they have flowered and begun to set seed, others will taste more or less the same. 
Cut off the flowers when they form on bok choi, beet leaves, chard, parsley, or basil, and these plants will continue to produce leaves that taste great and which are no different from the leaves before the plant flowered. 
It is a good idea to cut off the flowering stems in order to focus the plant on leafy growth rather than its reproductive cycle, but if you do so, the leaves you can continue to harvest will largely be unaffected. 
In the case of bok choi, like other related brassicas, the flowering stems and flowers or their buds are also edible and are great in a stir fry. 

Edible Flowers

You might be surprised by how many flowers are not only edible but also delicious. Beyond nasturtium blossoms and rose petals, a surprising number of blooms are a true delight to eat. Learn about which flowers are edible and best practices here: 42 Flowers You Can Eat.

When Bolting is Beneficial 

You might be surprised to learn that in my garden, I sometimes actively encourage some plants to bolt. This is not only not an issue, but can also be actively beneficial. 
First of all, sometimes bolting is a prelude to a harvest, if you are going to harvest the seed pods (as with radishes) or the seeds (as with mustards, coriander, or dill). So bolting might sometimes simply mean that you can enjoy a harvest a little earlier. 
However, even when we are not able to harvest after a plant bolts, sometimes it can still be beneficial to allow them to do so. 
For example, I often leave a brassica and allow it to flower in my garden because the flowers are a wonderful boon for pollinators and predatory insects that help keep pest numbers down. And once the plants begin to set seed, those seeds can often be a valuable food source for seed-eating birds and other wildlife that might share your garden. 
Learning to let nature take its course from time to time can be a good lesson to learn as an organic gardener. But of course, we want to get the balance right and make sure that, where necessary, we prevent premature bolting to make sure we still obtain a worthwhile yield.