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Gardening : Don't Let Cilantro Plants Quickly Go to Seed


QUESTION: I have a small herb garden in pots on my patio and although most have done nicely, I'm wondering why my cilantro plant died. The whole area gets lots of sun, and I water it regularly. My basil and chives are thriving. Any suggestions would be appreciated--I love that herb.

ANSWER: Cilantro is one of my favorites too, but a lot of people have trouble keeping cilantro from becoming coriander. This annual herb from southern Europe, technically named Coriandrum sativun , lives to make seed, which is what cooks call coriander. In the warmth of summer, it wants to set seed rapidly, but if you start the plants now, in the fall, it will take much longer and there will be plenty of leaves for fresh salsa, soft tacos or some special Chinese dish.

A second sowing in early spring, say March, should keep you in cilantro until the onset of summer. In summer, you might try keeping the cilantro in a cooler position and pinch off flower buds as they begin to form. A little shade might help, and keep the soil constantly moist once the plants are several inches tall.

Starting cilantro from seed (you can use the coriander seed sold at the market) will help, since the little pots sold at nurseries contain way too many seedlings. Crowded, they go to seed quickly. Or, pry all the little seedlings apart and give each its own spot, or pot. Of course, being an annual, once they make seed, they die, so start fresh every now and then to keep yourself swimming in cilantro.

Tree Roots, Not Shade, Likely Cause of Problem

Q: I have a problem with my front flower bed where there are a jillion trees. I have managed to get grass (St. Augustine), bushes and shrubs to grow in the dense shade, but azaleas die in less than two weeks, impatiens grow no higher than five inches and I cannot find an honest-to-goodness flower that will put up with this perpetual shade. You have any suggestions?

A: If impatiens won't grow, shade's not the problem, but tree roots. I suspect you'll find roots everywhere you dig, and they are sucking the soil dry so no flower can become established. Try digging up the top few inches of soil, removing all the roots (this won't hurt most garden trees) and mix in a little bagged organic amendment. Then install sprinklers so you can keep new flowers moist. I know of contractors that double-up the sprinklers under trees to make sure there's enough water for the trees and the plants under them. For instance, instead of six sprinklers, they install twelve that overlap.

You may never get azaleas to grow in this situation, but impatiens and bedding begonias will and you can make them more interesting by planting some of the New Guinea impatiens with the colored foliage. You could also plant cinerarias, cyclamen, forget-me-nots, foxgloves, and primroses in the fall for winter and spring color, or coleus and caladiums in summer, though they are grown for colorful foliage, not "honest-to-goodness flowers." Where it's most shady, try clivia, which one pundit said "will grow in a cave." These permanent plants tolerate root competition and shade, although the big orange flowers only bloom once in spring.

In a Quandary Over Conflicting Advice

Q: In a recent article, several poison experts advised against such plants as oleander, poinsettia, bottle brush, pepper trees, rosemary, bougainvillea and carissa because of toxicity, bees or thorns. I feel blocked at every turn because these are the very plants we are told to cultivate in order to save water. I'm already in a quandary because the DWP says to plant shade trees close to the house and the Fire Department says don't plant them closer than 30 feet from the house. The two departments contradict each other because many xeriscape plants are flammable and now there's baby-proofing. I challenge you to show us plants that are drought-resistant, fireproof, non-allergenic, baby-proof, and low maintenance.

A: There is no list of perfect plants, but you can sort out some of these concerns. If your garden is in a fire area, surrounded by native brush, the Fire Department is right and protecting your home from brush fires outweighs the energy savings produced by trees that shade the house.

In fire areas, how you design your plantings is more important than what you plant, so you can use drought-resistant things, even natives, if they are spaced properly and if they are kept neat. No plant is "fireproof." Even ice plant was found to actually spread brush fires because so much dead matter accumulates under the leaves.

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