Like most garden cooks, I feel inspired when a bunch of freshly picked parsley waits in a jar of water on the kitchen counter. Vibrant green parsley brings colour, flavour and nutrition to any meal, and you can combine parsley with basil, dill, mint, or other herbs when making herb pestos. Growing parsley to harvest fresh all summer – plus more to dry for winter use – is not at all difficult. Simply plan to set out new seedlings twice a year, in spring and again in late summer, which means growing parsley as a cold-hardy annual.
Originally from the central Mediterranean region, Petroselinum crispum is generally divided into two types – flat-leafed or Italian parsley defining the neopolitanum subtype, and curly parsley grouped as Petroselinum crispum var crispum. I agree with cooks who prefer Italian parsley for fresh cooking, but curly parsley leaves have a higher dry matter content that makes them better for drying. In between, there is the modest leaf curl of ‘Paramount’ types, which are curvaceous yet easy to clean. If you are planting an edible edging, fine-textured “moss curled” parsley varieties should be on your list.
Growing Parsley Successfully from Seed
Parsley seeds are notoriously slow to germinate, but one technique does seem to help speed up sprouting. Place the dry seeds in a small dish, and cover them with very warm (110°F/43°C) water, and let sit overnight. Pour off any seeds that float, and strain the others onto a paper towel. Plant immediately, and keep moist until the seeds sprout.
Parsley seeds are capable of germinating at chilly temperatures, but the process proceeds best at normal room temperature, just above 70°F/21°C. Spring or summer, I start my parsley seeds indoors under lights, and expect only about half of the primed seeds to germinate. Low germination rates are normal for parsley.
Particularly in spring, you can save much time and trouble by buying parsley seedlings from a local greenhouse grower, but do look for young, smallish plants. Seedlings that are exposed to substantial cold when they are young are much more likely to bolt and bloom compared to plants that have enjoyed consistently mild conditions – another reason to grow your own.
Harvesting and Drying Parsley
Like other members of the carrot family, parsley plants make new growth from the centres, or crowns, and naturally shed their outermost leaves as they age. The best quality leaves for eating fall in between – they are fully green and robust, in perfect condition. These should be pinched off branch by branch, leaving plenty of older stems behind to nurture the plant, while the crown continues to make new growth.
When parsley plants are producing more perfect leaves than you can use, start drying them in small batches. A dehydrator is ideal because parsley must dry quickly, protected from light, if it is to retain its green colour. You also can dry parsley in a warm oven if you watch it closely and keep the temperature low, below 130°F/54°C.
Caterpillars and Other Problems
In midsummer, I am often happy to see a black-and-yellow caterpillar or two on one of my plants, because they mature into beautiful black swallowtail butterflies. In rare years there may be several, which I gently move to a single plant so they won’t eat all my parsley.
I am less happy to see my parsley plants rot off at the base in late summer, a problem I suspect is caused by naturally-occurring soil fungi of the fusarium group. Whatever the cause, the plants wilt and die, which make me glad I remembered to start fresh seeds indoors. The healthy new plants I set out in August seldom show problems, and produce beautifully until cold winter weather stops their growth.
In my climate, I can nurse parsley through winter with substantial winter protection, but where winters are mild, parsley often survives the cold and blooms heavily the following spring. Small wasps and other beneficial insects often visit the umbels of yellow flowers, which continue to appear for several weeks.
As a true biennial, parsley is supposed to die after it blooms, and most plants do. Yet we gardeners have seen pups, or offsets, growing from the outside of dying mother stumps, which can be carefully cut away with a chunk of roots attached, and transplanted to a pot or new location. Or sometimes an offset or secondary crown simply decides to regrow from a dying parsley plant, and that’s fine, too. Just a little testament to the power of parsley.