Has your garden gotten away from you? It happens to the best of us. You go on vacation and when you get back your lettuce is a foot taller and flowering. And so is your spinach. And your cilantro.
Some vegetables are only meant to grow in cooler temperatures, so when the height of summer hits, they react to the heat and bolt: They get tall and leggy and produce flowers and seeds. And then they die. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed as a gardener. It just means you’ve witnessed the entire life cycle of a plant.
Vegetables that produce their seeds in fruit, such as tomatoes, squash and peas, flower earlier in their lives and will often continue to flower if the fruit is picked. For leafy greens and root vegetables that don’t produce fruit, however, their traditional harvest period is all just warming up for the big show. As far as the plant is concerned, those tasty leaves are just there to gather energy for the real objective: pollination and seed production. If you want to try your hand at collecting seeds, you should leave your plants in the ground until they start to wither and brown before harvesting them.
If its flowers you’re after, however, pick with abandon! Pick them at their peak and arrange them in vases around your home. You can also dry them by hanging them upside down in a shady, airy place, so you can keep them arranged in a dry vase for much longer.
Cilantro gets especially impressive when it flowers, and it keeps its smell. Put it in a vase in your kitchen for delicate white flower clusters and the occasional waft of deliciousness.
Leeks are hardy, and if you missed one or two last summer, they’re probably right where you left them. You can eat them after they’ve overwintered, but if you let them go too long into the summer they’ll shoot straight up and burst into these amazing Dr. Seuss pom-poms that keep their shape when dried.
Dill explodes upward and outward into delicate yellow flowers that look great on their own or as filler around larger, stronger flowers.
Radishes and lettuce take on a strong and bitter taste when the weather gets too hot. If you’re willing to leave them in the garden a bit longer, however, they’ll sprout a tall central stalk that branches out into delicate, soft blooms in yellow, white and pink.
Chives blossom early in the spring, creating their own, subtle pom-poms. Cut them at their best and bring them inside to dry. Shake them gently over a jar to collect the seeds that fall out easily, then keep them for flower arrangements.
So if you’ve come back to an overgrown, inedible garden, don’t despair! Cut those flowers and bring them inside. Leeks and radishes on the kitchen table make for a great conversation piece! Virtually all leafy greens and roots will flower if left long enough, particularly in summer heat.
One vegetable that should be avoided, however, is the parsnip. Parsnips blossom into beautiful yellow branched flowers that look a lot like dill. Tempting as it may be, do not cut those parsnip flowers! When cut, parsnip greens exude a sticky white sap that can cause serious irritation, and even blistering if it comes into contact with skin. If your parsnips are flowering, just leave them where they are and appreciate them from afar.
Liz Baessler is a New England-based freelance writer who loves to travel, cook, and watch things grow. You can follow her gardening adventures or hire her to write for you.