Warm sun beckoned me into the garden. The aroma of wet, decaying leaves mingled with the earth scent of garden loam, filling my senses as I pulled back the mulch that had protected my planting beds all winter. It was one of those breath-taking days in early spring when you finally believe that winter might be over.
I was anxious to get started, but the forecast still called for freezing nights, with a chance of snow later in the week. I stared at the empty soil… and that’s when I noticed the seedlings. Amazingly, tiny green shoots were pushing out of the ground, even where snow lingered in the shade. What could be germinating now? Two of my favorite plants!
I’m a sucker for anything that blooms blue, and bachelor buttons are undeniably blue. There’s even a shade of blue named after their alternate, and perhaps more familiar, name—cornflower blue. Although white and pink varieties are also available, they don’t interest me in the slightest.
Resembling small carnations (which are in the same family), bachelor buttons are among the easiest to grow of all annuals. In fact, they plant themselves. Over fifteen years ago I emptied a packet of seed onto the edges of my vegetable garden. Every year they sprout, bloom, and set more seed for next year’s flowers. All I do is pull the spent plants in the fall, shaking the seeds where I want them to grow next. Give them full sun and water once or twice a week if it doesn’t rain.
Reaching a height of about 12 to 18 inches, bachelor buttons make great cutting flowers, with their cool tones offering a pleasing contrast to warmer shades in a bouquet. They bring an informal look to the landscape, reminding one of grandmother’s flower garden.
An essential ingredient in cuisines ranging from Mexican to Chinese and Indian, you can buy cilantro by the bunch in the produce section of the market. With almost no work at all, however, you can enjoy several months of non-stop picking from your own garden.
Cilantro, also known as Chinese parsley, prefers full sun, although it will tolerate light shade. As the individual plants are rather small, it helps to sow thickly so the plants are close together. For an adequate supply of leaves, you need too many plants to make buying seedlings practical. The small round seeds need darkness to germinate, so bury them about half an inch deep, directly outside where you want them to grow. Tap roots resent transplanting, but offer some drought tolerance; don’t let the plants completely dry out however.
You can harvest the leaves at any time, picking them as needed in the kitchen. If left unmolested, cilantro will quickly grow to about two feet in height, with delicate, airy leaves. (At this point, the leaves may be a tad bitter.) The flat clusters of white flowers (similar to carrots and parsley) attract lacewings and other beneficial insects. Be sure to leave some plants to produce seed for use as coriander, and to sow for next year’s leaf crop. I just break off the stems and strip off the seedheads where I want them to grow the following spring. Nature does the rest.
With the rising popularity of cilantro as a seasoning, several cultivars are now available that are a bit slower to bloom, allowing for an extended leaf harvest. If leaves are your goal, look for packets of Santo, Slo-bolt, or Jantar.