The power of parsley: A heavy-hitter on the plate and in the garden
Betcha have a clump of it growing by the kitchen door, or maybe a pot bristling with a topknot of its deep green frills on a sunny windowsill, ready to snip to color-up and season most any dish. But there’s a lot more to parsley than just a pretty green “face.” Colorful, healthful and almost universal in its use, parsley deserves a closer look — both on the plate and in the garden.
In my search for information on parsley, I turned up this from a vintage cooking encyclopedia: “A decorative, green-leafed herb of the carrot family used to season and garnish foods. Although once limited to southern Europe where it is used for medicinal purposes as well as for food, parsley is now grown worldwide. “Although parsley contains a considerable amount of vitamin A, it is not usually eaten in large enough amounts to affect nutrition to any extent. One tablespoon contains only one calorie.”
Whoever wrote that must never have had a bowl of tabooli, that cracked-wheat and tomato concoction that some would nickname a parsley salad, or tasted one of my garden pasta salads that relies heavily on this “decorative green-leafed herb.” Parsley has come a long way from those days when a sprig of the stuff was the only spot of green on a steakhouse platter. Let’s take a closer look at this ubiquitous herb that you may never take for granted again.
From the National Garden Bureau we get some parsley basics: “Parsley leaves are comprised of three leaflets on short stems, that branch in threes at the tips of eight-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 nine to 18 inches tall and spreads about six to nine inches. An Italian type may grow to three 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 overwinter and flower the next season.”
And it is in the garden that parsley becomes a heavy hitter. According to Mike Adams, editor of NaturalNews.com, parsley both repels harmful insects and attracts beneficial ones. Harmful beetles avoid it, and you can use this property to your advantage by spraying susceptible plants with a strong tea brewed of parsley leaves, or simply chop the leaves and sprinkle them about.
To attract predatory wasps and hoverflies that kill caterpillars and other garden predators allow parsley to flower and go to seed.
Plant parsley near tomatoes. The herb attracts wasps that kill tomato hornworms. And to make roses more fragrant, plant parsley nearby. However, Adams, the “Health Ranger” warns that planting parsley and mint together isn’t a good idea, as neither will thrive. That’s some heavy hitting from one leafy little green herb, wouldn’t you say?
Parsley is quite cold tolerant, growing green and bushy even with a thick covering of snow. However if you’ve ever started parsley from seed, you know how tricky it can be. It’s those hard little seeds that are the problem, and they take a long time to germinate. But whether you start from seeds or seedlings, once you grow parsley, you’ll realize how easy it is and you’ll never have to buy another supermarket bunch of it or resort to those little bottles of dried flakes. Here is some advice from NGB on starting seeds and growing parsley:
• Starting parsley seedlings indoors: Soak seeds overnight prior to planting to improve germination and use moistened seed starter mix or other sterile, soilless medium. Sow seeds about an inch apart and cover with a quarter-inch layer of the moist medium. Keep evenly moist and maintain soil temperature of about 70F. Expect sprouts in 14 to 21 days. 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 four to six weeks.
• 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, dribble the seeds into indented rows a quarter- to half-an-inch deep. After three or four weeks, when sprouts are a few inches tall and show their first true leaves, thin them to allow eight 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 seedlings on an overcast day or late in the day to minimize transplant stress. Dig holes 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 and set each one in a 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.
• Planting parsley in containers: Parsley grows happily in a container alone, with other herbs or with flowers, as long as it gets enough sun. Use one that is 12 inches or deeper. Fill with moistened soilless potting mix to within two inches of its top. Mix in some granular slow-acting fertilizer or plan to water plants once a month with a dilute general purpose liquid fertilizer. Water often to prevent container plants from drying out during hot summer days.
• 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 two weeks. Chop leaves and blend with water or stock then freeze in an ice cube tray for up to six months. Parsley also dries well in a regular or microwave oven, although it loses some flavor. Store dried parsley in an airtight jar for up to a year.
Use fresh parsley in cooked dishes, casseroles and stews, or fresh in salads like a garden-fresh summer pasta salad. For the recipe, visit my blog at: http://gardeningonthego.wordpress.com/2011/07/21/its-whats-for-lunch—a-garden-pasta-salad/.
Parsley has long been used as a medicinal herb for asthma, coughs, eye inflammations and arthritis with its anti-inflammatory properties. It is also reported to boost the immune system, and can possibly protect us from a range of ailments from cancer to colds. The seeds are also used crushed or in a tea for various conditions, including killing “scalp vermin.”
And this brings us to the last, though not the least, tidbit about parsley that takes us back to that steakhouse plate of beef and potato. The snippet of parsley garnishing that repast might often have been taken at last — as a breath freshener. Who knew parsley had all that much depth and substance? I know I for one will be adding a lot more parsley to my garden and my plate.
Lynette L. Walther is the recipient of the Garden Writers Association’s Silver Award of Achievement for 2012, National Garden Bureau's Exemplary Journalism Award and the Florida Magazine Association's Silver Award of Writing Excellence. She is a member of the Garden Writers Association, and she gardens in Camden. Got questions, or comments? Visit her blog, and join in the conversation at: gardeningonthego.wordpress.com or “friend her” on Facebook.