What cook’s garden could be complete without parsley? Without doubt one of the most used herbs in the kitchen, parsley is not only a source of lively, fresh flavor but of valuable vitamins (A, B1, B2, C and niacin, calcium and iron) as well. It has historically been used as a breath freshener, which is why a sprig is often placed on a dinner plate to be eaten after the meal is consumed. The medicinal garden requires a place for parsley because recent studies indicate that parsley contains essential oils that inhibit tumor formation and is antimicrobial. And in addition to being beneficial to humans, parsley is a bountiful source of food for many beneficial caterpillars that become beautiful butterflies. It is especially favored by the swallowtails, so parsley definitely belongs in any pollinator garden. And because it’s dark green leaves are so decorative, parsley can be used as an elegant and inexpensive edging for any flower garden as well!
A biennial, parsley (Petroselinum) is easy to grow in sun or light shade. Related to the carrot family, it does appreciate plenty of room for its fleshy root and grows a lush bouquet of leaves when given adequate moisture and nutrients. If left in the ground after its first growing season, parsley often returns in early spring. Those first leaves are tasty, but soon become more bitter and tough as the plant produces a tall bloom stalk. The flower umbels resemble those of dill or fennel, but smaller. I find them very useful as filler in bouquets. (An argument to include parsley in the Cutting Garden!) If allowed, the flowers will produce seeds that turn brown and eventually fall to the ground. If not eaten by critters, those seeds will germinate the following spring and produce another crop of parsley plants.
If there are no self-seeded plants, then one will need to plant. Placing the seeds in a plastic bag in the freezer for a week will greatly enhance germination. Or if short on time, place seeds in a muslin bag tied under a faucet and let cold water run thru the seeds for 2 hours. (The thought of running water for 2 hrs just to soak parsley seed is contrary to my frugal/environmental nature, but it is an option.) Then simply sow them in small pots of potting soil, cover with a bit more, water, and place out of the way at room temperature. Parsley likes darkness to germinate, but as soon as the green sprouts show, move them into bright light. Like other umbelliferae, parsley dislikes having its roots disturbed and therefore resents transplanting. It is do-able when the plants are small, but growth will be faster if they are just grown in a small, deep pot (remember that “carrot” root!) and then moved into the garden once danger of frost is past. If plants have been carefully hardened off, they can survive light frosts. Do keep in mind that rabbits and other critters adore parsley as much as we do, and unprotected plants are likely to disappear overnight.
Parsley is available in both a “curly” leaf and a “flat” leaf form. Culturally, treat them the same. In general, flat leaf parsley tends to be a bit taller. Some claim that the flavor of flat leaf is better, so it is often preferred by chefs, but I suspect that the ease of cleaning and chopping the flat leaves is more of a consideration than the flavor. Curly parsley is definitely more decorative, and the caterpillars show no preference. Whatever type is grown, harvest the outer leaves so the center of the plant can continue to produce leaves the entire season. Harvesting often is actually good for the plant, so that stems and leaves do not get too tough. In Europe, parsley root or Hamburg Parsley is often grown and available in markets nearly year-round. It is used similar to parsnips, and in fact looks similar enough that I have often bought the wrong one! Its Latin name, “Petroselinum” comes from selinum, or celery and petros, or rock.
Fresh parsley adds a delightful taste of spring to any dish, as well as brilliant green color. However, if you want to store parsley for the winter either freezing or drying it are the best options. Freeze in small quantities so only the amount needed requires thawing. Or chop and freeze in ice cube trays. Then a cube can simply be added to soups or stews. Otherwise, allow the cube to thaw in a small strainer so the water can drain away before adding to egg dishes or cheese balls, etc. Microwave drying will provide a supply of parsley that holds its color, while just hanging to air dry will result in bundles of beige. To microwave dry, simply rinse leaves and pat dry between paper towels. Remove leaves from the stems and place leaves on a dry piece of paper towel in a single layer, preferably on a large plate that can go in the microwave. Cover with another piece of paper towel and microwave for 15-20 seconds. Remove from microwave and flip onto another plate so that the top paper towel is now on the bottom. You may need to adjust leaves so they are in a single layer again, depending upon your flipping skills. Remove the now damp paper towel that was on the bottom and replace it with a fresh paper towel. Repeat until the bottom paper towel is no longer moist at all and the parsley is crisp. Allow to cool before placing the dried parsley in airtight jars or tins. Store in a dark, cool place. Do this in small batches and the earlier paper towels can be used again and again.
Do grow parsley somewhere in your garden this year, and be sure to plant enough for both your family and the caterpillars! And try this Parsley Salad! Chop coarsely, 1 bunch parsley. Add 3 diced tomatoes, 1 diced cucumber, 3 green onions sliced thinly, 1 c. sliced black olives. Toss with a dressing made of 1/4 c. lemon juice, 1/2 c. good olive oil or salad oil, salt and pepper.
NOTE: This article was first published on my website as part of my January E-newsletter. There are 20 years of herb articles, gardening info, and recipes there, so visit Carolee’s Herb Farm for more good reading and photos.