bolting red cabbage

This red cabbage bolted into flower before forming a nice, tight, round head.

In gardening we are not talking about nuts and bolts or how fast you might want to chase away garden pests. One of the commonly used gardening terms, “bolt” is used to describe plants that send up flowers and set seed too early. There are some plants that you don’t want to flower (and subsequently set seed). Vegetables like carrots, beets and lettuce, for example, will become woody or bitter as soon as the flower shoots begin to develop. Certain varieties of plants are more prone than others to “go to seed” or “bolt” if temperatures warm too much or vary from ideal and plants feel rushed to complete their annual or biennial life cycles. Starting plants early enough that they can comfortably finish their growth rather than rushing into flower will prevent the problem. Choosing varieties that are bred for your climate will help, too.

You can shop for varieties of vegetables that will say “slow to bolt” meaning that they are not as easily encouraged into flower by less than ideal conditions than other varieties. Leafy crops and root crops are the edibles that are damaged most by going to seed. Once a plant undergoes the process of producing blooms it stops growing lush leaves and roots often harden. All the energy goes into forcing flowers so the plant can eventually produce seed. Edibles where fruits are involved, benefit by focusing on the seed-setting process.

Even plants with ornamental foliage can sometimes be discouraged from flowering. When it is more important to have strong foliage growth, flowering can waste the energy of the plant. In these cases a gardener wants to discourage blooming or even remove flowering shoots.