Bolting Vegetables Can Be A Problem Or A Benefit. Learn More About Why They Bolt, What Causes It & How To Prevent It Here.

I get a lot of questions about bolting vegetables and what is often obvious is that many newer gardeners don’t understand what bolting is and why it’s not always a bad thing. For example one lady complained that her tomatoes had bolted. I suspect she actually meant they had etiolated because if your tomatoes don’t bolt you’ll not get any fruit!

So perhaps I should start this article by explaining what bolting is.

What Is Bolting?

The simplest definition is the everyday meaning, which is that bolting is to move very fast, especially as a result of being scared. The meaning in plants is similar, but not quite the same.

Botanically, the answer often given in text books is that bolting is when a vegetable prematurely runs to seed. In some cases this makes them unusable. But it’s not quite that simple in many cases and often bolting is a good thing!

I have problem with this definition. Though it’s a simple definition the word “prematurely” that troubles me. If a plant doesn’t run to seed we don’t get seeds. And without seeds we can’t grow new plants from seed. In the case of annuals we expect the plant to seed in the first year, and in the case of biennials in the second year. Sometimes a biennial will seed in its first year, and that’s not necessarily a problem if being grown for seed (though if you want it to remain a biennial it might be).

But if we want to harvest a root or leaves from the plant then prematurely running to seed isn’t a good idea. Especially if we haven’t harvested any crop from it.

There is another definition of bolting. It’s there one Wikipedia uses. It largely agrees with the above definition, but doesn’t use the word prematurely. It makes more sense to me.

Is Bolting Good Or Bad?

It depends entirely on the type of plant you are growing. As indicated above, a biennial running seed in year one may well fail to crop before it does. That’s bad. BUT dispense with that premature word and the world is different.

I want my fruiting plants, eg tomatoes, cues, aubergine, courgettes etc to flower and produce fruit. So the fact they have run to seed is good, it’s what we want because without the plant trying to produce seed we don’t get the flowers or fruit. This isn’t premature so arguably isn’t bolting. It’s intended.

But if we go back tot he lady at the beginning of this article, the one complaining that her tomatoes had bolted, and we can see that this is exactly what we need to produce toms.

What Promotes Bolting In Plants? What Triggers Bolting?

The first thing to promote bolting is nature. Plants are meant to produce seed so need to run to seed at some stage in its life cycle. I could write here about day length (photoperiodism), plant hormones such as gibberellins or high temperatures at various stages of growth.

From the gardener’s perspective the only question is when.

Weather conditions or growing conditions, (they are often very similar) can prompt a plant to seed prematurely. The reason is very simple.

A plant didn’t evolve to feed you or me via our gardens or allotments. Its sole job is to produce the next generation. In normal circumstances it will do that in its prescribed time, eg annually, biennially or over a longer timescale if it’s a perennial.

But if a plant “thinks” it is going to die prematurely, because of drought or other adverse conditions, its job is still to produce seed for the next generation. So, when conditions are adverse it can often produce seed prematurely. That, for a plant, means it has succeeded. It’s done its job!

How To Prevent Bolting

In theory this is simple. Ensure it has good growing conditions.

Bolting lettuce, Forest & Kim Starr, CC BY 3.0 US <>, via Wikimedia Commons

That might mean it is getting enough water and nutrients, isn’t overshadowed by other plants that rob it of light and the other things it needs.

Is Bolting Good For Plants?

From the plants point of view, yes. They don’t see it as premature or not. They just produce seed or they don’t.

From a gardeners point of view it is bad. When I grew lettuce commercially I would very occasionally get a few bolters. They were the ones that had suffered in some way. the place I saw 99% of of them, and we only had a dozen or so each year, was invariably in the doorway to our drive through polytunnels. They were the ones growing where it was draughty, the soil was most likely to be compacted, the irrigation didn’t quite reach (or it dried out quickly) … in other words where conditions were really poor. So they tried to do what any plant does. They tried to run to seed.

Bolting Vegetables, The Benefits

The benefit for me is that it reminds me that growing the plant as I want it requires skill and for me to use my skill as a grower to get the best I can from the plants.

From a plants point of view, it means it produces seed and another generation.

It’s that simple.

Are There Bolt Proof Plants – Bolt Resistant Cultivars

Yes, plant breeders have produced bolt resistant cultivars of those plants most likely to bolt. none of them are perfect, but the overcome the worst of the plants tendency to bolt in most cases. Check the seed catalogues for bolt hardy varieties.

Tag: Bolting Vegetables
Image Attribution: Forest & Kim Starr, CC BY 3.0 US, via Wikimedia Commons

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