Until I started growing it, I didn’t understand the appeal of parsley. It was a bouncy green garnish that didn’t taste like much, or it was dry flakes that tasted like even less. Although the herb has been in use since ancient times- native to Turkey and the surrounding areas, the Romans introduced it to England and other places in the empire- I didn’t understand why it was so popular. Then I started growing starts of it for other people, tried some, and the light dawned. Fresh parsley is an amazing thing compared to dried, and the Italian flat leaf type is much more flavorful than the curly type.
While curly parsley (Petroselinium crispum) makes a beautiful garnish and nice after meal palate cleanser, for cooking you really want P. neapolitanum, the Italian flat leaf type. While it doesn’t have big taste of its own, it brings out the other flavors in a dish and balances them. If you are making a soup or stew and it just seems to be lacking something, try adding some parsley and see if that does the trick. It frequently does. It’s usually used just as a flavoring, but you can make a pesto out of it. It’s high in vitamins A, C, and K. The huge amount of chlorophyll in its bright green leaves is what makes it an ideal for breath cleanser. Some of oils found in parsley are powerful antioxidants, and the plant is a diuretic- it promotes the removal of excess sodium from the body, thus balancing fluid build-up; some herbalists use it for lowering blood pressure.
Parsley is a biennial plant, living for two years. The first year it makes a lot of leaves; it lives through some of our winters, and makes some leaves before sending up flowers and seeding itself. Parsley is related to carrots and Queen Anne’s lace, so the lacy white flowers are quite attractive and encourage beneficial insects. The leaves that it makes the second year are few and slightly bitter, so you really need to start new plants every year.
Parsley seed is very slow to sprout, as well as having a low germination rate. You need to have fresh seed, and to increase your success rate, soak it in warm water for 48 hours, changing the water every day. Do not bury the seed but just press it into the top of the soil and keep moist. Because of its slow germination and growth, start your seed two months before the last frost date (May 15 in most of the Inland Northwest). Parsley has a reputation of being difficult to transplant, but I’ve found that if you don’t allow it to become root bound before moving it, the little plants will do just fine. I think the old superstition that only a witch could grow parsley came about because of the difficulty in transplanting!
Plant your parsley in a sunny (six to eight hours of sun a day minimum), well drained site in soil that is high in organic matter (compost). While planting them a foot apart is ideal, if you’re short on space you can crowd them. I put three plants in a three gallon container, and harvest often so the plants don’t shade each other. Like all herbs, parsley should only be fertilized lightly, with a formula that is higher in phosphorus than in nitrogen, like Bloom!. Apply the fertilizer at half strength. Too much fertilizer, especially nitrogen, results in big, beautiful plants that lack in flavor. Thankfully, parsley is not bothered by insects or disease, and because it doesn’t bloom until its second year, you can ignore it without it going to seed. It will produce well into late fall- I cut it to the ground a week ago, and today it has enough new growth that it could be cut again! It is one of the easiest herbs to grow indoors: put it in your brightest lit window and you can have fresh parsley all winter. The plant will be leggy and not as full flavored as when grown outside, but it’s still a lot better than dried parsley!
Harvest by cutting the stems as close to the crown as possible. The stems won’t make more leaves, and they just make things crowded if you leave them. Rinse lightly, and pick the leaves from the stems. Fresh is best, of course, but frozen isn’t bad. To freeze parsley, I put the fresh cut herb in colander to rinse it, then allow it to sit for a half hour or so to drip dry. I then put it, stems and all, into a plastic bag, squeeze as much air out of it as possible, and place in the freezer. During winter I can just pull out what I need and throw it right into the pot.
Other than getting the seeds to sprout, parsley is probably the easiest herb for a beginner. You can frequently buy starts at nurseries or farmer’s markets to avoid that problem. It’s useful in many styles of cooking, and makes a pretty border or container plant.