I was annoyed and slightly embarrassed as I stood in the produce section of Whole Foods Market. This week's menu at home called for Tex-Mex, to make good use of the pinto beans, tomatoes, onions and garlic I've harvested from my modest farming operation.
But I was missing cilantro. Without cilantro, Mexican food just isn't worth the trouble it takes to prepare it. I pushed my basket to the checkout line with avocados, lemons and a handful of other items that don't grow in my part of Texas, closer than ever in my aspiration to declare food independence and opt out of industrial agriculture.
Yet, among the items working their way along the conveyor belt was cilantro — an herb so plentiful in my garden last April that I could have wholesaled it to the store myself.
I've never seen cilantro disturbed by any pests — not even grasshoppers — so I usually forget that it's even growing in my garden until I need it.
Taken for granted
The reason for my feast-to-famine scarcity of cilantro was that I simply failed to make successive plantings of it. Cilantro is an herb that grows fast, sprouting into a small plant full of broad, tender young leaves that we consider the good stuff. However, these leaves are replaced in a matter of weeks by tougher, airy strands of leaves that are edible but much less desirable.
Soon after the adult leaves appear, cilantro grows about knee-high and blooms, or "bolts," as the farmers say. That's the last step before the plant dies and dries out into a sort of tumbleweed with hundreds of seeds on top — seeds that can be harvested as coriander or replanted for another round of cilantro.
It only takes a few weeks for cilantro to progress from sprouting to bolting; summer heat hastens the process. So it's among the handful of garden plants we have to plant successively to keep our harvest going.
In fact, to keep cilantro available for whenever the urge to make pico de gallo strikes, we have to plant new spots every two weeks, either in the garden or in containers. Both methods work the same, so even the loft-dwelling urbanite with a sunny window sill can enjoy fresh cilantro.
Cilantro is easy to grow. I plant it in a 4-by-4-foot area, or half of one of my 4-by-8 beds, preferably one that's shaded from the afternoon sun. I make a basin by moving the soil away from the center of the planting area toward the sides of the bed. The basin helps to pool water toward the roots of the plants. Then I scatter about 30 seeds in the basin and cover them with a half inch of soil.
Crowding such a short-lived herb is not a problem, as the dense growth shades the soil and helps conserve moisture. Later, I can pull up all but two or three plants and let them bolt to produce even more seed. Allowing cilantro to bolt is also good for inviting pollinators into the garden; there are several species of native bees that can only harvest nectar from flowers as tiny as those of cilantro.
Before I plant the seeds, I sometimes soak them overnight in water; I've read that soaking speeds up germination. Usually, though, I forget this step and plant them dry, and I haven't noticed a difference.
Once cilantro sprouts, it's good to let the plant grow to about 4 inches high before picking the outermost leaves to use in the kitchen. In a salsa emergency, though, cilantro can be picked from the moment it sprouts.
Letting the soil dry out is the fastest way to spur cilantro to bolt; keeping the soil moist lengthens the time that young leaves are available. I've never seen cilantro disturbed by any pests — not even grasshoppers — so I usually forget that it's even growing in my garden until I need it.
In the last few years, my stand of cilantro has reseeded itself so much from bolted plants that I've often overlooked planting it. In the fall, it sprouts as late as December; the plants grow all winter and endure freezing temperatures well under a frost blanket.
This year-round access to cilantro is what caused me to forget about it and overlook the fact that it was gone. Usually, if I look around, I can find a sprig growing by a tomato plant or Swiss chard — wherever bed I keep well watered. But not this week.
Once its absence was noticed, it left a huge, gaping hole in my satisfaction in becoming more food independent.