If you are new to gardening, you may notice some of your veggies are taking on a new appearance. Leafy greens are growing tall and lanky, cauliflowers and broccoli heads are no longer dense and clustered, root crops are getting hairy. Fear not, your plant has not been abducted by aliens! It’s simply going though part of its life span known as bolting.
All vegetable plants go though a cycle: seed germination, grow leaves, flower, bear fruit/seeds, die. Depending on the type of plant, we eat them at different stages in their life. Spinach, for example, get eaten in the grow phase. Tomatoes are the fruit/seed stage. Plants grown for their leaves (or in the case of broccoli and cauliflower, undeveloped flower heads) will bolt.
You can tell when a leafy plant is starting to bolt because first they lengthen in height, with individual leaves growing farther and farther apart, then flower heads appear, eventually bursting into bloom. You can sometimes delay bolting by breaking off the flowers or the lengthening stalk.
Some will bolt when it starts getting warm. Some when it gets to cold. Some simply because they have been alive for a lot time. Some plants bolt quickly after planting (like bok choy), some take forever (like red russian kale). Most commonly, plants that were planted in the fall will bolt when spring approaches. In my garden, that’s right now.
Although the plant is still edible during bolting, it usually isn’t very good. Energy is going into flower and seed production, so the plants get bitter, stronger tasting, and generally not very palatable. Now is usually the time to pull the plants, add to the compost or feed to the chickens, and make space for new plantings.
However, if you have the space, I strongly advocate to leave the plant and let it flower. Bolted veggies, such as arugula, broccoli, radish, carrots, cilantro, and parsley produce lovely flowers for some early color in the yard, and they are excellent for bees and beneficial insects. On my bolted broccoli alone, I’ve spotted bumble bees, honey bees, carpenter bees, tiny native bees, and ladybugs.