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By Diane Blazek
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) a member of the carrot family, is a lot more than just a decorative green on of a plate. 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, Greeks mix large amounts with tomato sauce to create moussaka flavoring and Spaniards use parsley as the prime ingredient in salsa verde. 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.
Parsley as Ornamental
Parsley is so attractive that it also integrates easily into ornamental plantings. 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.
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 overwinter and flower the next season.
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 ¼-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 4 to 6 weeks.
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 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 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 2 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 & 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. Chop leaves and blend with water or stock then freeze in an ice cube tray for 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.
Lastly, enjoy your freshly harvested parsley in any number of homemade culinary delights. Here are a few recipes from the Food Network to inspire some ideas!