Have you ever wondered whether your garden vegetables are edible at various stages of their growing cycle? For example, if your broccoli bolts, can you eat those pretty yellow flowers? Since I was curious, I started doing some research on the matter. That’s how I discovered Life Cycle Gardening.
What Is a Life Cycle?
A plant’s life cycle consists of the amount of time it takes for it to become mature enough to sprout, mature/bloom, produce seed, and ultimately die.
- Annuals complete their life cycle in a single growing season
- Perennials will keep growing season after season, repeating their life cycle for years
The life cycles of all the plants you choose for your garden play a large part in the garden’s overall design and the ability to enjoy an ongoing harvest.
What Is Life Cycle Gardening?
Life Cycle Gardening is the term used to describe allowing your vegetables, fruits, and flowers to remain intact and unpicked beyond their normal harvesting time. As plants reach the end of their growing cycle (for annuals) or single growing season (for perennials), they will produce flowers, additional stems, and/or seeds. In many cases these flowers, stems, and seeds are not only edible but also provide new flavor sensations with excellent nutritional benefits.
For example, as spring heats up and turns into summer, you may notice that your vegetable garden is full of color. That’s because many cool-weather vegetables and herbs like broccoli and cilantro send up flowering stems that will create seeds to propagate the plant. Gardeners call this “bolting.”
While many gardeners consider bolting to be the end of the line for their plants, it’s often just the beginning for the life cycle gardener!
Life cycle gardening recognizes that peak harvest time is just one stage in a plant’s life cycle, and it’s not the only one that produces edibles or brings other value to the gardener.
Edible flowers provide one of the easiest ways to explore life cycle gardening. It will occur naturally when certain vegetables and herbs are not harvested but are allowed to bolt.
If the thought of leaving plants to bolt sends shivers up your spine, you can ease yourself into the life cycle gardening process by putting a few plants aside specifically for this purpose.
When you start to see honeybees, bumblebees, butterflies, and other pollinators visit your bolting plants as they bloom, you can take pride in knowing you’re making an important contribution to the environment.
And if you happen to sell your produce at Farmer’s Markets, you will discover that life cycle gardening provides unique new offerings for your customers. The following list describes just three common “flower bolts” to consider for the process, but there are so many more.
Many vegetable flowers can be eaten, but cilantro blooms seem to be a particular favorite of many people.
Most of us are familiar with leafy cilantro plants that grow a foot tall or so. Fewer of us are aware that, if left to grow through its full life cycle, cilantro will grow into a lovely three foot tall bush covered in small white flowers. The flowers begin at ground level and grow on umbels surrounded by tufts of feathery leaves, each with its own bouquet. The flowers add a refreshing burst of flavor when snipped and added to salads or sprinkled on cooked vegetables just prior to serving.
Yellow Onion Flowers
Onions are biennial plants, meaning they have a life cycle of two years. Because we harvest onion bulbs in their first year, we rarely ever see the second-year bolting. If you set aside some onions for your life cycle gardening, however, you will be in for quite a treat.
Yellow onions complete their two-year life cycle by sending up stalks that hold flower balls covered with a burst of star-like blossoms. The stalks as well as the flowers are edible, and they keep will under refrigeration, too. As you might expect, these flowers impart a mild onion flavor when added to dishes like salads and soups.
Most people aren’t aware that broccoli harvested at its peak is made up of a stalk of tightly-closed flower buds.
As broccoli matures through its life cycle and bolts — which is often brought on by warming temperatures — those buds open up into lovely yellow flowers. You’ll discover that pollinators love these flowers, but they are good for us, too.
Broccoli flowers offer a slightly milder flavor than when the vegetable is harvested and consumed at peak readiness. And they are quite versatile. They can be steamed, sauteed, or added to soups and stews. They can also be chopped and added raw to salads. However broccoli flowers are prepared, they offer great nutritional value just like their host plant.
Easy Vegetables to Get You Started With Life Cycle Gardening
If you’re interested in giving life cycle gardening a try, you’ll find the following vegetables are some of the easiest to take through the process. You can begin with one or two or dive right in and try them all!
You’ll find that life cycle gardening is a great way to extend your growing cycle, maximize your harvest, and enjoy new flavors all from the same plants.
Artichokes and Cardoons
Many life cycle gardeners consider cardoon and artichoke flower stalks the glory of their vegetable garden. And no wonder! They have multi-branched stalks that stand many feet tall to show off their flowering lavender crowns. The flowers attract bees and butterflies galore and are said to glow in the late afternoon sun.
Artichoke and cardoon flowers can be picked for the kitchen or grown as a long-lasting florist crop. You can also allow the stalks to dry in place to create a hardy, natural trellis for your next-season climbing peas and bean crops.
The most under-utilized portion of artichoke and cardoon plants is the edible flower stalk. When it is still flexible, the stalk just below the harvested chokes or the cardoon flowers are quite tender and delicious. Cardoon stems benefit from being wrapped in newspaper or plastic several weeks before harvesting to blanch.
Mature artichoke stalks should be split in half to expose the tender interior called the pith. The pith has a slightly smoky flavor and can be eaten raw in salads or parboiled and served warm with butter.
Only the white interior of the cardoon stalk is edible. It is most commonly prepared as a gratin utilizing the central rib of the blanched stems. The leafy “side stalks” of the cardoon are considered a delicacy in many parts of the world and are typically boiled and served with a sauce. Most people liken the taste of the cardoon, not surprisingly, to that of a mild artichoke.
After you harvest the central bud, the artichoke plant will also produce numerous “side stalks.” The small, tender buds produced on these offshoots are another delicacy to be savored and should be harvested when no more than 2 – 3 inches long. To prepare them, remove the outer leaves to reveal the lighter green leaves, then cut off the top third of the bud. Slice thinly on the vertical cross section and saute in hot olive oil until crisp. Throw a little salt on before serving and enjoy!
It is said that if you give fava beans space, they will “tiller” or, in other words, put out many stems. For the gardener this means that fava beans will provide an abundance of tender, nutrient-rich axillary shoots which can be harvested before the mature beans develop. Fava shoots are more deeply flavored than pea shoots and easily more bountiful. One bed of fava beans left to their own devices will produce many pounds of delicious shoots that are a great addition to salads and sandwiches.
The fava beans themselves can be harvested throughout their growth cycle, but how you prepare them will depend on their maturity. When fava beans are in the early stages of development, the bean pods are tender enough to be eaten whole and raw. About halfway through their maturation cycle, fava bean pods can still be used whole but should be cooked a bit to soften them up.
Fully-mature fava beans should be removed from their pods and cooked before eating. They make a great addition to soups,, stews, casseroles, and stir-fries. Fava beans can also be dried for extended storage and then re-hydrated for use in soups and stews.
The flowers of fava plants are not favorable for eating. Instead, you should cut the entire plant back to a few inches above the ground once it finishes blooming. This will lead to more sprouts and a second crop of beans.
Beets are an excellent crop to divide between regular harvest and life cycle gardening. The beetroot is a beloved vegetable itself that can be sliced and diced to be added to salads, cooked and served on its own, or even pickled.
Beets that are allowed to progress through their life cycle, on the other hand, will provide an abundance of leaves that can be harvested all season long as a cut-and-come-again salad crop. Depending on your particular climate, a beet plant may continue to produce these tasty, edible leaves for several years.
Beets produce tender flower buds when they bolt, but most people don’t consider them edible. If the bolted stems are left to overwinter, however, you should be rewarded with more beets come springtime. Alternately, you can simply plant some grocery store beets to get a quick fix of fresh beet greens for your kitchen.
Chard is another leafy plant that can be harvested at a variety of stages in its life cycle. Young chard leaves are mild in flavor with tender stalks. More mature chard develops a heartier flavor and sturdier stems that are excellent sauteed in a bit of olive oil.
Chard is a hearty grower that doesn’t bolt easily, but, if and when it does, you’ll find the buds quite tasty. The best time to harvest is when the buds are still tightly closed and showing only a hint of yellow. The chard “flowers” are tasty on their own, sauteed or parboiled and served with a little salt. They can also be chopped and used in tomato sauce to add a nutritional boost.
Collards and Kale
Both collards and kale are members of the hearty brassicas family. They prefer cool weather so make excellent early spring and fall-to-winter crops.
Kale is a hearty plant whose leaves can be harvested very young for the tenderest offerings that work great chopped raw into salads and slaw. Larger, tougher leaves are ideal for sauteing, adding to soups and stews, or baking into crispy chips (and, honestly, if you have never tried freshly-made kale chips, you are missing out!).
Kale is a cut-and-come-again plant that will continue to produce new, edible leaves as long as the center stalk is left intact during harvesting. And kale will actually be sweeter if it endures a little frost.
All is not lost once the weather turns too hot, though, because the flowers and shoots of a bolting kale plant are also edible. The flowering parts of the brassicas family of plants is known as raab, and raab is both tasty and nutritious. It can be chopped and used raw or lightly sauteed.
Collards, in their prime, are harvested like kale, though typically collards are best enjoyed cooked. Parboiling and sauteing are common cooking methods for this nutritious green.
When the weather turns hot, however, collard growers are in for an especially tasty treat. As a healthy collard plant bolts, it expands into a shrub that may grow to six feet tall and equally as wide. During this late stage of the collards’ life cycle, it produces a lot of small leaves that are edible and quite tasty.
The real prize, though, is the abundance of seed pods.
Picked tender, collard seed pods are similar to string beans and can be cooked and served in the same ways. They can be served on their own as a tasty side dish or tossed into soups or stirfries to add a colorful burst of nutrition. Just be sure to enjoy them early on because they become stringy and tough if left too long on the plant.
Cilantro and Coriander
Many people do not realize that cilantro and coriander are produced by the same plant. While many gardeners avoid growing cilantro because it is so quick to bolt in warm weather, other gardeners understand they are really getting two crops in one. The distinct two-stage harvest of the cilantro plant is actually one of the more interesting examples of life cycle gardening.
In the first stage of the cilantro plant’s life cycle, the leaves and stems are harvested. Cilantro adds a distinctively fresh zing to salads, sandwiches, and salsas. It also makes a tasty garnish when chopped and sprinkled atop soups and stir fries.
Once cilantro bolts, it produces feathery foliage with small flowers and the distinctively-tasting coriander seed. Coriander has a unique lemon-peppery flavor that pairs well with chicken and seafood. The seeds can be used whole or ground.
As an interesting side note, if you’ve ever encountered anyone with an extreme dislike of cilantro and coriander, it turns out there’s a scientifically-researched genetic reason for that dislike. So if someone you know says they hate cilantro, you can believe them!
Chicory is a hearty perennial of the dandelion family that offers the life cycle gardener a whole lot of goodness from each and every plant.
Varieties of chicory such as radicchio and endive are cultivated primarily for their leaves which provide an earthy boost to salads and slaw. They can also be cooked — roasted, grilled, or sauteed, which will provide a more mellow, less bitter flavor.
It’s best to use tender leaves harvested early in the life cycle for raw salads. More mature leaves will be tougher so will be more palatable when cooked.
Chicory root can be harvested then baked, ground, and either used on its own or mixed with coffee grounds to make chicory coffee. Chicory coffee has surfaced many times in history as a substitute for the real thing when war, weather, or trade issues caused regional coffee shortages. Some areas of the world, however, consider chicory coffee a mainstay, and it’s readily available in its own right.
When chicory bolts, it can grow from a modest 12 to 18 inches to over 6 feet tall. The stems become tough and inedible, but they put on quite a show with their blue flowers. If you allow the plants to go to full seed, you will have dozens of new chicory plants the next spring.
Onions and Garlic
It’s fairly common knowledge that, if your onion bulb or clove of garlic sprouts, you can pop it in the dirt and grow yourself some more of these healthy, tasty plants. Onions and garlic make life cycle gardening pretty simple. The plants can be overwintered and harvested again in the spring.
Onions and garlic typically will bolt in their second year and will produce flowers ranging from white to pink to lavender. You can enjoy the beauty of these flowers in your garden or use them in your kitchen. A few onion flowers sprinkled on a salad or added to a plate as garnish add a unique, colorful, and nutritious flourish that’s sure to impress.
While it’s most common to grow radishes for their roots, you can also allow them to flower. When flowering, radish plants can reach up to 18 inches in height and display blooms of white, pink, or mauve.
Pollinators love radish flowers, and they are, in fact, the preferred host of the to the Sara Orangetip butterfly on the west coast of the United States. Humans also find the young, tender seed pods quite tasty, however. You can slice them into salads, cook them whole, and even pickle them.
Tomatoes are an enduring favorite for most home vegetable gardens, and the life cycle gardener knows it isn’t necessary to wait until peak ripeness to enjoy them.
Green “unripe” tomatoes are solid and tartly acidic, but those are the qualities that make them ideal for the classic fried-green-tomato recipe. Green tomatoes are also great for pickling and make wonderful relishes and savory jams
We’d also like to clarify that, although there’s a persistent myth that the leaves of the tomato plant are poisonous, this is not true. Tomato leaves are edible and contain many of the same nutritional compounds and aromatic flavors as the ripened fruit. So feel free to experiment. Add a few finely chopped tomato leaves to your next batch of spaghetti sauce (purchased or homemade) and see what you think. You’ll get a richer sauce and a nutritional boost for your efforts.
The Joys of Life Cycle Gardening
We hope during your next growing season you’ll give life cycle gardening a try. You can use some (or all!) of the vegetables and herbs we’ve covered, and you can experiment with your own favorites.
As we’ve shown, the process of life cycle gardening allows you to expand your garden’s yield in unique and beneficial ways with the plants you’re already growing. We hope you’ll let us know how your life cycle garden grows!