Parsley, (Petroselinum crispum) a member of the carrot family, is a lot more than a decorative green bit on the side of a restaurant plate. The Greeks and Romans knew parsley well as a medicinal plant and a seasoning. In fact, it is one of the most nutritious of all herbs. An excellent source of vitamins A and C, it also contains niacin, riboflavin and calcium. Rich in chlorophyll, parsley is also a breath freshener. Parsley's taste appeal is world-wide. The Japanese deep fry it in tempura batter. Greeks mix large amounts of it with tomato sauce to create the unique moussaka flavoring. Spaniards use parsley as the prime ingredient in salsa verde, and the English make parsley jelly. Both the common, (curly), and Italian (flat-leaved) parsleys are ideal for garnishes and for flavoring soups, stews, salad dressings, and sauces, but Italian parsley reportedly has the best flavor. Grow both types in the kitchen or herb garden. Parsley leaves are comprised of 3 leaflets on short stems, that branch in threes at the tips of 8 inch long bare stalks. Leaves of common parsley are dark green with divided tips which curl tightly. Those of Italian parsley are a lighter green and more deeply divided and feathery, resembling celery foliage. A common parsley plant typically grows 9 to 18 inches tall and spreads about 6 to 9 inches. An Italian type may grow to 3 feet tall. Although parsley is a biennial--its life spanning two seasons--it is usually treated as an annual and is pulled up at the end of the first season. That is why its flowers, which appear in early summer of its second year, are seldom seen. They are flat clusters composed of tiny, greenish yellow florets, and resemble Queen Anne's lace. As with most herbs, flowering tends to make the foliage bitter and less useful for cooking. However, parsley flowers host many beneficial insects, including butterfly larvae, so it may be worth allowing some plants to winter over and flower the next season.


Growing Parsley


Parsley grows best in all day sun in cooler areas of the country, but appreciates some afternoon shade in warmer climates. The ideal soil is moderately rich, moist, and well-drained, although parsley plants tolerate poorer soils having less organic matter as long as drainage is adequate. Soil should be loose to accommodate parsley's taproot and mildly acidic (pH 6.0 to 7.0). To direct sow seeds in rows, trace a shallow indentation in the soil with a stick or pencil to guide planting. Then sow the seeds by dribbling them through your thumb and forefinger into the indented rows. Plant seeds ¼ to ½ an inch deep. After 3 or 4 weeks, when sprouts are a few inches tall and show their first true leaves, thin them to allow 8 to 10 inches of space between the remaining ones so they can grow freely. Depending on the variety, parsley plants will grow to maturity and set seed in about 70 to 90 days. Plant home grown or commercially raised seedlings on an overcast day or late in the day to minimize transplant stress. Dig holes in the planting bed about 10 to 12 inches apart and about the size of the containers the seedlings are growing in. Gently pop each seedling from its container by and set each one in each hole. Firm the soil over the rootball and water immediately. If you have added granular slow-acting fertilizer to the soil, do not feed the plants further. Shield newly planted seedlings from bright sun the first day or so while they adjust to the shock of transplanting.


Young parsley plants need regular watering-until they become established. Then those that are in soil rich in organic matter and are mulched will need watering only every week or two. Those in poor, unmulched soil or in containers need frequent watering--possibly daily if it is sunny. Spread 2 to 3 inches of some organic material such as chopped leaves, hay, or straw on the soil around parsley plants when they are about 6 inches tall. This mulch helps the soil retain moisture and discourages weeds.


Harvesting And Storing Parsley


Begin harvesting parsley when it produces leaf stems with three segments. Harvest the larger leaves at the outside of the plant first, leaving the new, interior shoots to mature. To encourage bushier parsley plants pick only the middle leaf segment of each main leaf stem. Store freshly picked, moistened sprigs in the refrigerator in a plastic bag for 2 weeks. Freeze chopped leaves in plastic bags or blended in water or meat or vegetable stock and frozen in an ice cube tray up to 6 months. Parsley also dries well in a regular or microwave oven, although it loses some flavor. Store dried parsley in an air-tight jar for up to a year.


Parsley As An Ornamental


Parsley is so attractive that it also integrates easily into ornamental plantings in residential landscapes. This is especially fortunate where sunny space is at a premium for both flowers and food plants. Its fine-textured foliage is attractive as neat edging or foliage fillers in flower beds, its rich green color setting off the bright blooms of pansies, petunias and other annuals. Plant parsley along the edges of windowboxes or planters stuffed with colorful annual flowers. It provides a soft foliage contrast to upright, broader leaved container staples such as geraniums. Parsley's drooping stems simultaneously soften the edges of pots and boxes. Because parsley likes cool weather, it can be depended on to provide perky foliage and rich green accents in both spring and fall gardens or container ensembles.


Growing Parsley Seedlings Indoors


1. Soak seeds overnight prior to planting to improve germination.


2. Fill flat shallow boxes, peat pots or seed starting equipment with moistened seed starter mix or other sterile, soilless medium.


3. Sow seeds about an inch apart in the shallow boxes or two to an individual pot, and cover them with a ¼-inch layer of the moist medium.


4. Keep them evenly moist and maintain soil temperature of about 70F. Expect sprouts in 14 to 21 days.


5. Set fluorescent lights two inches above the newly opened leaves, adjusting them to maintain this distance above the top leaves of the seedlings as they grow for 4 to 6 weeks.