April Showers and Bolting Flowers

Has some of the greenery in your garden suddenly produced bounds of flowers instead of their typical lush green leaves? Well-- unfortunately these plants have most likely “bolted,” and while they can be pretty in bloom, there are some things you should know about the process.

First-- what’s bolting?

A bolted plant will look tall, sparse, and will produce a plethora of flowers very rapidly. They will often stop growing leaves and pour all of their nutrients into their flowers. Therefore, leaves will begin to look unhealthy, shriveled, brown, etc.

Plants will bolt when the temperature of their soil exceeds a certain threshold, or if there isn’t enough moisture in the soil. These environmental changes signal to the plant that conditions are becoming inhospitable and soon won’t support plant life. As an evolutionary defense, its leaves will cease to grow and it will immediately begin flowering to disperse its seeds in hopes of regrowing in a more conducive environment. A few examples of bolted plants are below.

Prevention

There is no guaranteed trick that will prevent bolting; the only way to ensure your plants will continue to grow strong and produce edible fruits and vegetables is to keep their soil temperature down at a reasonable level. Ideally you will avoid growing leafy plants in the dead heat of summer, make sure you plant your spring crops early in the season, and wait until the temperature falls a bit to plant your autumn garden.

Harvest, harvest harvest!  Frequent harvest of the outer leaves of a leafy green will extend its life.

However, if your plants are heading into summer or if you are aware of an unusual heat wave approaching, try layering some mulch on top of your garden soil, so it’s not in the direct path of hot sunshine. If you are lucky enough to own an Avalow self-watering raised bed, you will only have to make sure your reservoir is topped off to ensure your plants have enough moisture. Finally, if you have one handy, try placing a large patio umbrella over your garden beds to protect them from the sun’s harmful rays.

Okay-- too late. What do I do once my plants have bolted?

Unfortunately, there’s very little you can do to reverse the bolting process. You can try cutting off all the flowers and buds immediately, but in the best case scenario this will likely only slow the process down. Once your plant has started bolting, it will probably continue to do so.

So...Can I still eat it?

Your bolted plant will still be edible, meaning it won’t do you harm to consume. However, it will likely taste bitter, the consistency will be tough and woody, and it will offer little nutrients. This happens because, after the bolting process has started, the plant sends all its energy and nutrients away from the leaves and fruits to expedite the process of flowering. So, in short-- we wouldn’t recommend consumption of the leaves. The flowers produced will be somewhat bitter or spicy, but they make a great addition to salads and add a pop of color!

What to do with bolted plants

So, I can’t reverse the flowering and I can’t eat the crops-- do I just replace them? Maybe, but there are actually a couple of other options for bolted plants.

  • Your small blooming flowers will attract bees and other pollinators, which can benefit your whole garden!
  • You get some free seeds! Wait for the seeds to dry before harvesting and you can plant them again in the following season. Voila! You have some heirloom crops. (Psst-- here’s the skinny on heirloom produce).
  • If you are gardening in a limited space (well, aren’t we all!) then you will probably want to rotate those bolted plants out as soon as possible so you can amend the soil and move on to another crop, likely a warmer-weather arrangement of plants. If that’s your situation, pull your bolted plants out and replant!

Which Plants are the boltiest?

Cool-whether plants tend to bolt the easiest. Crops such as mustard greens, cilantro, and dill are examples of plants that will bolt easily and very quickly. Other cool-weather leafy greens such as broccoli, cabbage, and lettuce are also easy bolters, though they won’t flower quite as fast.

So that’s the Ava-low down on bolted plants. Keep some mulch in your garden shed for the occasional heat wave, and stay aware of the temperature of your soil. In the end, bolted plants can mean better luck for your garden next year, so don’t be discouraged!