Gardening

What Does Bolting Mean?

Lettuce plants bolting, with distinct upright stems.

By Larry Hodgson

Bolting, also called going to seed, is one of those arcane horticultural terms that throws beginning gardeners. When a plant “bolts,” that doesn’t mean it is running away, of course, but instead that has started to flower or go to seed prematurely. And by “prematurely,” I really mean before the gardener wanted it to. (It may seem the perfect moment to flower from the plant’s point of view!)

Bolting means the plant has gone beyond the vegetative stage in its life and has begun taking the next step: flowering. This is bad news for many herbs and leaf and root vegetables, like spinach, lettuce, parsley, basil and radishes, as not only do they stop producing more of the edible part the gardener wants, but their leaves or roots often become bitter or fibrous and are no longer edible.

Hot or dry conditions often stimulate bolting, so you can delay it by keeping the soil cool and moist (a mulch may be helpful) or by sowing the plant in a cooler season. Many leaf vegetables, for example, grow best in spring or fall, even winter in mild climates, but bolt rapidly during the summer. Yet other plants, like onions or carrots, may bolt after they go through a prolonged cold snap.

Growing plants well is the best way to prevent bolting … and it can be helpful to grow varieties said to be slow to bolt or resistant to bolting.

Article originally published in this blog on March 27, 2017.

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

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