How to grow the herb cilantro in the garden. We discuss how where and when to grow new cilantro plants from seed, plus the most popular varieties to grow for culinary use.
Cilantro’s sharp, distinctive flavor adds interest to many foods, especially in Mexican cuisine. It is used to flavor salsa, salads, chicken, seafood, assorted sauces, and much more. This herb is short-lived, especially in warmer climates, but easy to grow if you remember to keep planting successions
The same plant species yields both Cilantro (the leaves) and coriander (the seed), which are used differently in cooking. Some varieties are chosen for leaf production, others for seed production. This article focuses on cultivating Cilantro for leaf production.
Growing Cilantro Plants in the Garden
Cilantro is an annual herb with an upright form and leafy habit. Most cilantro plants grow between 12 to 18 inches tall with a similar spread. Flowers range in color between white, pink, and pale cream.
Cilantro thrives in light, well-drained soil with a reasonable amount of organic matter. It will grow in zones 4 through 10, but planting times, planting sites, and watering are handled differently in different areas.
Cilantro’s light requirements vary depending on the warmth of the climate or the time of year. Cilantro is a cool-loving crop that can tolerate temps down to 10 F but bolts readily in temperatures above 85 F. It’s happiest in weather between 50 and 85 degrees.
In Michigan, which is in USDA zones 5-6, you should plant Cilantro in full sun most of the year but provide afternoon shade in hot seasons or locations. In a warmer climate such as Maryland (zone 7), Cilantro will do best where it receives afternoon shade throughout the growing season.
Plant Cilantro seeds in the garden between 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep, spaced about an inch apart. Sow more seed than you think you will need, and then thin plants to every 6-10 inches.
There are several varieties or cultivators of Cilantro that are recommended for good flavor and high yields.
- The classic Cilantro Santos or Santo is valued for its leaf production and grows between 12 to 18 inches high. Unlike many other cultivators, Santo can be grown during the cool winter months as well as during the spring and summer. This is the preferred variety for many commercial growers and home gardeners.
Other cultivars frequently mentioned, without much detail, in Extension publications include Caribe, Leisure, Long-Standing, and Slo-Bolt.
- Caribe is an open-pollinated variety of Cilantro that performed very well in trials. It is slow to bolt, and Fedco Seeds calls it the best for flavor and heat tolerance.
- Leisure, which Johnny Seed’s describes as very similar to Santo, has a good flavor and consistent leaf production. Leisure is recommended for milder climates and grows up to 24 inches tall.
- Long-Standing is slightly taller at 20-30 inches high, with a spread of just 4 to 12 inches. This variety is slower to grow in the garden maturing in 60 to 90 days vs the standard 55 days. It is also said to be a tough cultivator that can thrive in less favorable conditions.
- Slo Bolt has been bred to resist going to seed too quickly and could be a good choice for warmer climates where bolting has been a problem.
When To Plant Cilantro
Cilantro germinates best in cool, moist conditions. It should be direct-seeded in the garden in well-watered soil when the night temperatures are below 60 F. In warmer weather, you can give it a head start by soaking the seed in water in the fridge overnight.
In the Complete Book of Herbs and Spices, Sarah Garland warns that Cilantro, which is started inside and then transplanted out, will bolt quickly.
The planting season depends very much on your location. In zones 5 and 6, Cilantro will grow best in spring and fall with succession plantings every 2-4 weeks.
In the heat of the south (or zones 9 and 10), the best planting times are in fall, winter, and early spring. Sow Cilantro every week through the growing season to keep a constant supply.
How To Take Care Of Cilantro
Cilantro needs plenty of moisture when it’s young but needs little water once established. Keeping the soil around your cilantro plants well watered and mulched may help to lower soil temperature.
Cilantro grown outdoors in good soil doesn’t require much fertilizing. I haven’t fertilized mine at all. If you want to maximize your harvest, work the fertilizer into the soil twice during the cilantro plants’ season. The Texas Extension recommends a fertilizer high in nitrogen, such as ammonium nitrate.
If you’re growing for leaves, not seeds, pinch seed heads off when they appear. This will prolong the life of the leaves and extend the harvesting period.
If you want to let your cilantro self-seed, you can allow some plants to mature while you harvest from others.
Common Problems With Cilantro
So far, my only problem with Cilantro has been the difficulty of keeping it from taking over the entire herb garden, as it grows fast and self-seeds vigorously. You may want to avoid planting Cilantro close to plants that are easily outcompeted.
Cilantro can also suffer from bacterial spot, which may be controlled or prevented by neem oil spray. Insects, including armyworms, cabbage loopers, and peach aphids, may attack cilantro plants.
Organic gardeners can use BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) to control the Beet Armyworm and cabbage loopers. Pyrethrum will control both caterpillars and aphids. BT is not dangerous to adult pollinators. Pyrethrum is, so it’s safest to apply it at dusk when pollinators aren’t active.
Companion Planting with Cilantro
Despite its takeover tendencies, Cilantro is often a beneficial companion plant. It can attract a variety of beneficial insects to your garden. See the fuller description at Companion Planting with Cilantro: How To Attract Beneficial Insects.
Cilantro will be ready for harvest 45 to 70 days after planting, depending on growing conditions and cultivator.
Cut off outer leaves once they reach a 4-6 inch length, allowing the inner leaves to grow. If you wish to harvest the entire crop, you can cut whole plants off 1-2 inches above soil level.
Like other herbs, your Cilantro will be most flavorful if you harvest it after the dew is off but before the full heat of the day.
Storing Fresh Cilantro
Cilantro’s flavor is best when it is fresh. You can keep fresh Cilantro in your fridge for up to 1 week if you put it in a jar of water as if it were a flower bouquet and cover it with a plastic bag. Change the water every two days.
Fresh cilantro is often used to flavor salsa, dressings, marinades, and many other dishes. Read more about the culinary uses of this herb in our article: Cooking with Fresh Cilantro: Spice Up Soups, Salsa, and More.
If you want to preserve your harvest longer, freezing is the preferred long-term storage method of cilantro rather than drying. Cilantro doesn’t dry very well—most of its flavor is lost. You can freeze Cilantro without blanching: just wash it, dry it, and stick it in a freezer bag with a bit of air for cushioning.
Growing Cilantro requires some care and attention to the climate you’re growing in and the sort of growing season you’re having.
But with attention, you can enjoy prolonged and abundant harvests of rich, flavorful cilantro leaves. And if some plants get by you and go to seed, don’t despair. You can either let them ripen into tasty coriander seeds or let them fall to earth and seed another lot of cilantro plants.