Daniel Gill, Merrill, Thomas A.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is a member of the carrot family that is native to Europe. The ancient Greeks and Romans knew parsley well as a medicinal plant and as a seasoning.
Parsley is, in fact, one of the most nutritious of herbs. An excellent source of vitamins A and C, it also contains niacin, riboflavin, iron and calcium.
Rich in chlorophyll, fresh parsley leaves also are an excellent breath freshener when chewed after a meal. That is the reason a sprig of parsley is a traditional garnish on dinner plates.
Parsley basically can be divided into two forms – curly parsley and Italian or flat-leaf parsley. Curly parsley is the more ornamental of the two. It’s great for use as a garnish as well as when cooking. It also makes an excellent addition to flowerbeds and planters. Flat-leaf parsley has a stronger flavor and is preferred for culinary purposes.
Although parsley is actually a biennial, we generally grow parsley as a cool-season annual from October through May. Seeds may be planted directly into the garden or in containers to produce transplants from September through February. Transplants can be purchased from area nurseries and planted into the garden from October through March. Since most gardeners just need a few plants, purchasing transplants is more popular than starting plants from seeds. Parsley planted in the fall is far more productive than when planted in the spring.
When planting seeds into the garden, cover them with a quarter-inch to a half-inch of soil. Water lightly every day, and the seeds should be up in 10 to 14 days. After three or four weeks, when the sprouts are a few inches tall and have several leaves, thin seedlings growing in the garden to allow about 10 inches between the plants. If desired, extras can be transplanted to other spots.
When purchasing parsley transplants at area nurseries, be sure to look carefully at the pot when you purchase it. You may find that a number of seeds were planted in the pot and it is full of young parsley plants. Planted as is, they would be far too crowded. Either pinch off all but two or three of the largest plants or separate the plants and plant them individually into small pots or the garden.
Grow parsley in beds that receive part shade to full sun (4 hours to 8 hours of direct sun). Production generally is greater in sunnier locations, but parsley will last longer into the heat of summer if it receives some afternoon shade. Well-prepared beds enriched with organic matter will encourage abundant growth for harvest.
Young, newly planted parsley plants need regular watering until they become established, so pay particular attention to them during dry weather. Once they are established, watch the weather and water deeply once or twice a week if there is no rain for more than a week.
You also can spread a 2-inch layer of mulch, such as chopped leaves, grass clippings or pine straw, around the plants. The mulch will help the soil retain moisture, discourage weeds and keep soil from splashing on the foliage.
Parsley grows happily in a container alone or with other herbs or flowers. Use a gallon-size container for one plant or larger containers for several plants or a mixed planting. Just be sure the container you use has drainage holes. All you have to do is fill the container with moistened potting mix and add some slow-release fertilizer – or plan to water the plants twice a month with a soluble fertilizer.
Begin harvesting parsley when it has grown to about 8 inches in diameter and has numerous leaves. Harvest the larger, lower leaves at the outside of the plant – leaving the newer interior shoots to mature. Generally, remove no more than one-third to one-half of the foliage at any one time.
Place the stems of freshly harvested parsley in a glass of water to use the leaves over the next few days. Store freshly picked and moistened parsley in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
Although parsley’s flavor is best when it is chopped fresh, it also can be preserved by freezing. To freeze parsley, chop it finely and place it in a layer about 1/2-inch thick in a plastic freezer bag. Press out as much air as possible and seal the bag. Break off pieces as needed. It keeps well frozen for up to six months.
In late spring, you may see colorful caterpillars (green with yellow-dotted black bands across each segment) feeding on the leaves of your parsley plants (as well as fennel and dill). These are the larvae of the beautiful black swallowtail butterfly. Try to leave them alone if they are not causing too much damage. Or if you would rather get them off your plants, give them to friends with parsley, dill or fennel growing in their butterfly gardens.
In late spring or early summer, parsley planted in the fall will generally bolt or send up a flower stalk. This signals a decline in foliage flavor and an end to harvesting. The tiny, greenish-white flowers in flat clusters are not showy, but do attract and provide nectar for tiny parasitic wasps. These wasps help control insect pests in the garden, so I always allow my parsley to stay in the garden and bloom, even when I’ve stopped harvesting the leaves. The plants die after blooming.
Parsley planted in the spring often does not bloom the first year. These plants may survive the summer, although heat stress stunts them and there will be no harvesting. However, as the weather cools in fall the plants will revive and produce very well during the cool season, blooming the next spring/early summer and then dying.
Whether planted into vegetable gardens, flowerbeds or in containers, parsley is attractive, nutritious and delicious. It deserves its reputation as one of the most popular herbs Louisiana gardeners grow.