Parsley. Is it the frilly, dark green garnish on your plate that goes back to the dishwasher at the end of your meal? Or is it the first herb you add to everything from omelettes to soup? Either way, parsley planting season is upon us.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is a cold-tolerant biennial that easily grows through our relatively mild Napa County winters. Once established, parsley is pretty hardy, and I can attest to its willingness to come back from mild neglect. Still, for abundant bunches to cut for your kitchen through long seasons, parsley grows best in rich, evenly moist, compost-rich soil in garden beds or pots.
Parsley seed can be slow to germinate and normally takes at least 18 days. You can hasten germination by soaking parsley seeds overnight. Sow seeds 1/4 inch deep and keep moist until you see germination.
If you directly sow your seeds into garden beds or boxes, sow parsley one to two inches apart in a row with quicker-germinating lettuce or radishes so you know where the seeds are. By the time you are harvesting lettuce thinnings and radishes for your fall salads, you can be thinning your now-visible parsley.
Other gardeners favor planting four or five seeds in each small pot or seed block to nurture through germination. Set transplants three to four inches apart in the garden when large enough. Parsley grows up to one foot the first year and can double in size in Year 2.
Parsley does fine in full sun with ample water but thrives in partial shade. Keep small plants evenly moist and weed early and often to help it get established. With its deep green foliage, pretty white flowers and mostly pest-free existence, parsley can easily contribute to an edible landscaping design.
You can also purchase parsley seedlings at your favorite local nursery or garden center.
Give parsley a space where it can stay for a while. It has a two-year life cycle, but parsley self-sows easily if you let some plants flower and develop seed. At the end of the season, give the seed heads a good shake over the bed and keep moist until germination and you will soon be harvesting parsley thinnings again.
Another reason to let some parsley go to flower and then seed is to attract pollinators and birds to your garden. Parsley is in the Umbellifer family, whose decorative flowers and round seed heads are magnets for all kinds of beneficial insects. At the end of parsley’s life cycle, parsley roots are prized, too. Many winter soups and stews have parsley root as their backbone, and it is often used as a substitute for turnips or parsnips. Peel them before use.
Begin to harvest outer stems of your plants when they have 8 to 10 leaves. Be sparing until the plants are established. When the parsley has filled out, harvest by grabbing a bunch and snipping it across at the stems. You will often see a new flush of tender growth. Parsley, when happy, is very generous.
I like to grow several different parsleys. Curly-leaf parsley is the darker green, frilly type that many of us think of as parsley. I like it for the deep color it contributes, minced, to grain salads or stuffed eggs. Curly parsley often finds its way into vases of flowers, too. The flat-leaf Italian varieties, both large and giant, are a kitchen staple in my house. Parsley pesto, parsley butter, parsley chopped into grain salads: there are so many ways to use parsley.
Do not wash parsley until you are ready to use it. Swish it through water to dislodge any dirt and use your salad spinner to dry, or blot with paper towels.
Fertilize parsley plants monthly with a nitrogen fertilizer, or more often if you notice leaves beginning to look less dark-green and more yellowish. Parsley is a nutritious and easy-to-grow addition to your kitchen garden. Take care of parsley, and it will take care of you.