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Life Cycle Gardening: Maximize Your Harvest

From colorful cut flowers to edible shoots, roots, and more, maximize your garden’s yield by harvesting during different stages of the plants’ lives.

| April/May 2019

During different growth stages, fava plants offer various edible options, including shoots and tender pods.
Photo by William Rubel

In spring, my vegetable garden is awash in color. Vibrant yellow broccoli rabe and mature fennel flowers contrast with the deep yellow of bolting collard blooms. There are white and deep-purple flowers on the fava beans, a deep blue from borage’s star-shaped flowers, and the lovely lighter blue of lacy, daisy-shaped chicory flowers.

When a vegetable plant sends up a flower stem, it’s described as “bolting.” While most gardeners consider bolting to be the end of the line for their plants, it’s often just the beginning for the life cycle gardener.

The overriding concept behind life cycle gardening is that the point at which we tend to harvest a plant is just one stage in the plant’s life cycle, and that stage isn’t the only one that produces good food or something else of value, such as flowers.

Vegetable flowers may be the easiest way to segue into life cycle gardening. Even if the thought of leaving anything to bolt sends shivers up your spine, you can ease yourself into it by setting aside a few plants for flowers. When you see honeybees, bumblebees, and other pollinators visiting your garden, I’m sure your heart will melt. And if you sell to farmers markets, you’ll find that some vegetable flowers are worth harvesting for sale. 

While I love all vegetable flowers, my current favorites are cilantro blooms. If you only know cilantro as a small plant from which you harvest leaves, you won’t recognize the plant when it transforms into a 3-foot-tall bush of small, white flowers. The flowers start at ground level, growing on umbels surrounded by tufts of feathery leaves, each umbel its own bouquet. The flowers add a nice flavor to salads.

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