When your vegetables shoot up stalks or form flowers, it means they are bolting. It's an inevitable part of the plants' reproductive cycle that often signals the end of harvesting for food. Credit: Courtesy of Linda Robbins Credit: Courtesy of Linda Robbins

If you’ve ever walked out to your garden and found tall stalks and flowers where just a day earlier there had been rows of ripe vegetables, you know the disappointment that comes when plants bolt.

Bolting — or going to seed — is a natural part of the growing process and recent warmer than normal weather has triggered early bolting around the state this summer.

From the plant’s point of view, bolting is a good thing. It means your plants are creating seeds and getting ready to reproduce. When a plant bolts, it sends up a flower stalk and all of the plant’s energy goes into reproduction.

“Bolting is how genes are passed on and it’s a normal thing,” said Caleb Goossen, organic crop and conservation specialist with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. “But it can be triggered under certain stressful conditions earlier than it otherwise happens.”

The most common stressors are heat and lack of water, according to Goossen.

“They were an issue in June [this year] particularly,” Goossen said. “Lately with so much rain, if something is bolting now it has just reached a point in its lifespan when it was going to [bolt] anyway.”

Timing of when a specific plant will bolt varies from species to species, according to Goossen. Once a plant does bolt, you aren’t going to want to eat it anymore. Although it’s still edible, the vegetables will become bitter and tough.

But that doesn’t mean it has outlived its usefulness, according to Goossen.

Leafy green vegetables and herbs tend to produce smaller flowers that are preferred by many insect pollinators. The pollinators will, in turn, help pollinate nearby fruiting crops like squash.  

You can also save those seeds for next year’s planting.

Other than that, the best thing to do is enjoy your crops before they bolt because, once it starts, it’s unstoppable.

“For most garden crops, it’s essentially inevitable, because every plant has evolved to reproduce,” Goossen said.

Correction: An earlier web version of this story misspelled Caleb Goossen’s name.

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.