Bolting Basics: How to Know When to Replace Your Plants

Your lettuce plants are dying to make more lettuce plants. I mean that literally.

(Cue “Circle of Life” music.)

Like most living things, plants ultimately seek to reproduce. To achieve this goal, lettuces—and many other greens—sprout tall stalks that produce small flowers that yield smaller seeds (that grow more plants, of course).

This is all part of a process called “bolting,” also known as “going to seed.” And for annuals like lettuce, it marks the end of a plant’s life cycle.

How to Identify and Delay Bolting

Environmental factors, such as temperature and day length, typically trigger bolting. For example, it’s in the warmer months and longer days of summer that cool weather crops (e.g., lettuce, spinach, broccoli), certain herbs and other non-fruiting plants begin to bolt.

Flowers are a sign greens have bolted.

Wondering if your plants have bolted? The signs are easy to identify:

  • Sudden, upward growth—usually of a singular, woody stalk with few leaves
  • Production of flowers, followed by that of seeds
  • Slowed production of edible, vegetative growth
  • Less desirable (often more bitter) produce flavor

Since bolting often ruins produce flavor and results in plant death, many gardeners work to prevent the process for as long as possible. You can delay bolting (and even temporarily reverse the process for herbs like basil and cilantro) by harvesting frequently and pinching off flowers as soon as they appear.

2 Benefits of Bolting

Even if you use the techniques above, it’s inevitable: your plants will eventually bolt—at which point you might as well replace them, right? Well, not so fast. 

Attract good bugs by allowing herbs like dill (pictured) to flower.

Here are a couple reasons you should consider allowing your plants to go to seed:

  1. You’ll attract good bugs. Pollinators like our beloved honeybee actually prefer the smaller flowers of greens and herbs. So if you let these plants bloom you’ll likely enjoy an increase in pollinator populations (a bonus for your fruiting crops like squash). Plus, parasitoids and predatory bugs will also feed on the pollen—and you want these guys in your garden, as they’ll help control garden pests naturally.
  2. You’ll get free seeds. I’m a fan of saving seeds. After all, it’s an easy way to keep growing crops you like (and save a little cash to boot!). The seed saving process requires little more than your patience. Simply allow your plants to flower, and wait for seeds to dry before harvesting. Here are a few more tips about saving seeds.

Next Steps and Resources

Once your plants have bolted and you’ve collected seeds, it’s time to add new plants to your Tower Garden! You can use the fresh seeds from your bolted plants, or you can try growing something completely different.

Here are a few helpful resources as you start new plants:

Not sure if your plants have bolted? Have another question? Leave me a comment!

Feature photo by Chiot’s Run


Leave a comment

Want to leave a comment? We'd love to hear it. Please note that all comments are moderated. Anything resembling spam will be deleted. Try to make this a meaningful conversation for all involved.