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Growing Parsley

Parsley plants do well in sun or partial shade, and prefer a rich, moist soil.

Parsley plants do well in sun or partial shade, and prefer a rich, moist soil.

Parsley deserves recognition for more than its role as a garnish. It is rich in vitamins, a good source of iron, and freshens your breath, as well.

Common parsley, Petroselinium crispum, a member of the carrot family (Apiaceae), is well known for its use as a garnish or as a flavouring in many dishes and salads. The curly varieties also make a nice addition to most gardens, planted with other herbaceous plants or used in a border. Native to the Mediterranean area, parsley has a biennial life cycle, but is usually grown as an annual in colder regions, because the plants often die during cold winters.

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 22 cm tall and spreads about 25cm.

Because parsley is usually treated as an annual, and is pulled up at the end of the first season, 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.

Parsley grows best in full sun. The ideal soil is moderately rich, moist and well drained. 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 a 15  mm deep. Parsley is very slow to germinate. After 3 or 4 weeks, when sprouts are a few inches tall and show their first true leaves, thin them to allow 20 to 30 cm of space between the remaining ones so they can grow freely.

Young parsley plants need regular watering until they become established. Spread one to two inches of mulch, such as grass clippings or chopped leaves on the soil around parsley plants when they are about 15 cm tall. This mulch helps the soil retain moisture and discourages weeds.

GROWING PARSLEY INDOORS

Parsley is an easy herb to grow indoors as long as it has a bright location and holes in the bottom of the pot to insure good drainage. Ensure that the depth of the pot is at least 20cm to give enough space for the roots to grow. The plants may be a bit spindly when grown indoors; this is due to lower light levels.

FEEDING PARSLEY

Fertilize plants in garden beds once or twice during the growing season, using a 5-10-5 commercial fertilizer at a rate of 85g per 3m of row. Use a liquid fertilizer at one half the label recommended strength every 3-4 weeks for container grown plants outside and every 4-6 weeks for parsley grown indoors.

HARVESTING PARSLEY

Harvest leafy stalk-like herbs such as parsley by snipping off the stalks close to the ground, beginning with the outside stalks. New growth will be encouraged throughout the growing season if pruned in this fashion. If just the tops are cut off and the leaf stalks remain, the plant will be less productive.

Fresh parsley has the best quality. Although it can be dried or frozen, much flavour is lost.  The plants remain green and productive into autumn and can handle light frosts. Leave the plants in place after the foliage has been killed by frost, and they may re-sprout in spring, depending on winter conditions. Then you may again harvest fresh parsley until the plant sends up a seed stalk and dies, having completed its biennial lifecycle.  However, this second year parsley may be slightly bitter.

Dry the leaves by spreading them on a screen or hanging them upside down in bunches in a warm, well-ventilated room out of direct light. For quick drying, dry the leaves in a slow oven at 35-45°C for just a few minutes. Store the dried leaves ground or whole in an airtight container away from heat sources or bright light. Fresh parsley can also be frozen in small bags in the freezer. Parsley preserved by either method should be used within a year’s time.

COOKING WITH PARSLEY

The mild, celery-like flavour of parsley’s leaves complements just about every savoury dish you could prepare. Use it to flavour stock, soups, or stews. Add it to butter before glazing potatoes or other root vegetables. Substitute parsley for basil in a pesto, or make the most out of the vitamin-packed (A, C, K) leaves in a salad. Parsley is a key ingredient in tabouli, and compliments sauces, stuffing, fish, and poultry dishes. Flat-leaf parsley has a more robust flavour than the curly-leaf kind, but curly parsley has a finer texture that’s better in salads.

VARIETIES

The most common variety is common or curly parsley, Petroselinium crispum. These curly types are quite versatile, forming dense clumps which are great for borders, inter-planting in the garden beds, and indoor or outdoor containers.

Italian flat-leaf parsley, P. neapolitanum is another popular variety. This plant can grow quite tall (2-3 ft) and is more gangly in habit. The flat serrated leaves have a much stronger and sweeter flavour than the other varieties, making it more desirable for cooking.

Hamburg parsley, P. tuberosum, is mainly grown for its white, fleshy, parsnip-like roots, used in flavouring soups. Tall, fern-like leaves make up the foliage.

Japanese parsley, Cryptotaenia japonica, resembles the Italian parsley but is not commonly grown. It has a more bitter taste and is sometimes used in Asian cooking.