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Season Is Right for Cilantro

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you want to grow big, leafy bunches of cilantro and you live in Orange County, don’t listen to conventional planting instructions.

Garden author Rosalind Creasy said most of the information on cilantro is written for gardeners living in the Northeast and Midwest.

“You will often read that the best time to plant cilantro is in the spring, but that’s not true for California,” said Creasy, author of “The Edible Herb Garden” (Periplus, 1999, $15) and “The Edible Asian Garden” (Periplus, 2000, $15). “It does best here when planted October through February.”

Fall and winter planting is ideal for cilantro because it is day-length sensitive, which means that when the days get longer, it will go to seed.

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“Plant in the fall and you’ll have big, healthy plants throughout winter and into spring,” said Creasy, who lives in Los Altos. “Plant in March or April and you won’t get much cilantro before it goes to seed.”

Geri Cibellis of Villa Park is a big fan of cilantro. She sows seed in October and enjoys the herb during fall, winter and spring.

“Cilantro has such a delightful flavor,” said the past president of the Orange County Organic Gardening Club. “I not only use it in salsa, but it’s a great flavor enhancer for many dishes. It’s even good on boiled potatoes with a little butter or olive oil.”

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Common in many Mexican and Asian dishes, cilantro is originally from Asia. The seeds of this annual herb are called coriander, but its fresh leaves are usually called cilantro or Chinese parsley.

Cilantro leaves have a distinctive, sharp flavor, while the seeds are more mild. The seeds are considered a major spice in India and the Middle East, and are used in sausage and various bean dishes and stews. They are also a major component of curry powders and chutneys. In Thai cuisine, the entire cilantro plant is used, including the roots.

A member of the same family as parsley and dill, cilantro has delicate, fern-like foliage and flat clusters of pinkish-white flowers, which attract beneficial insects. For the best success growing cilantro, keep the following tips in mind:

* Plant in full sun in the ground or containers.

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* Grow from seed. “Cilantro doesn’t like to be transplanted, so you’re better off planting from seed,” Creasy said. She suggested seeking slow-bolt or long-season varieties of seed at nurseries or via mail order.

“Ninety-five percent of cilantro in the world is grown for the seed, which is why many varieties tend to quickly go to seed,” Creasy said. “The slow-bolt varieties have been bred for their foliage and will give you a longer, more lush harvest.”

* Provide rich, organic soil. Before planting, amend with homemade or bagged compost.

* Scatter seed. Cibellis sprinkles the seed over the prepared bed and keeps it continually moist until plants emerge. Once growing, cilantro needs to be kept moist, but not soggy.

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* Separate plants before transplanting. “Generally when you find plants in the nursery, they consist of many small plants growing together,” Creasy said. “If you plant the whole clump, it will usually die. The secret is to separate each tiny plant.”

* Harvest like lettuce. Pull from the outside of the cilantro plant, leaving the center leaves to continue growing.

* Save seed. Once cilantro flowers and goes to seed, you can use the dried seed as coriander or save it for future planting. Cibellis has been saving the seed from her cilantro for years and replanting it. She puts dried flower heads in a paper bag and shakes them, which releases the seeds. They are then stored in a cool, dry place.

* Fertilize only when leaves yellow. If well-amended, cilantro shouldn’t need additional fertilizer. If feeding is necessary, a chemical fertilizer should be used, because organic forms of nitrogen are not released when the ground is cold.

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