Everything You Need to Know About Growing Parsley

(Image credit: Jayme Henderson)

Growing up, kale was simply the “green stuff” that lined the beds of pale, nutrient-deficient iceberg lettuce at the salad bar. Talk about the ultimate irony. Now, kale is an almost daily component of my diet. The only dandelions or purslane I touched, as a child, were the so-called “weeds” I was told to pull up from my front yard. Today, those two make routine appearances in my salads and smoothies.

And parsley? Those too were just frilly leaves, sitting atop my entrée, that I flicked aside so I could enjoy the main course. Today, parsley is the most-used herb in my home kitchen. I’m here to tell you why you should be growing it in your garden and how easy it is to do.

(Image credit: Jayme Henderson)

Why Should I Grow Parsley?

Parsley (Umbelliferae) is a versatile herb. It is incorporated into many different cooking styles and cuisines. Similar to what salt does to a dish, parsley ties a meal’s flavors together. From a vegetable omelet, to tabbouleh salad, to chimichurri sauce on a grilled steak, parsley adds a bright, high note to almost anything I’m making.

Aside from its deliciousness, parsley is a powerhouse of nutrients. Did you know that parsley actually has more vitamin C in it than an orange? Try adding several leaves and stalks to your morning juicing blend.

Perennial or annual?

So far, in this herb gardening series, we’ve only talked about perennials, plants that grow back each year, and annuals, plants that die after one season. Parsley is different because it is a biennial. This less common classification means that the plant only comes back after two gardening seasons — just enough time to produce leaves, go to seed, and develop a substantial taproot.

As a biennial, the parsley plant offers delicious leaves its first year, and goes to seed its second year. Parsley also delivers an oft-overlooked bonus that final year: its taproot is edible. In fact, parsley’s root is the most pungent and flavorful part of the plant.

(Image credit: Jayme Henderson)

Which Kind of Parsley Should I Grow?

Parsley is closely related to dill, carrots, and celery. The resemblance is pretty clear. There are two main kinds of parsley that you’ll encounter: flat-leaf (Neapolitanum) or curly leaf (P. Crispum). Many cooks choose to grow flat-leaf parsley for its more vibrant flavor and its ease of chopping. Curly parsley is equally delicious, but also provides an eye-catching, edible display in a garden.

How to Plant Parsley

  • Where: Like so many of the herbs we’ve talked about, parsley also performs well in a container. If you plant parsley indoors, keep the pot near a warm, sunny window. If you grow roses in your garden, plant parsley around your rose bushes. Supposedly, you’ll reap more fragrant blossoms. I like to plant parsley in my containers, alongside my tomatoes, where they make excellent companions.
  • When: While parsley is an easy plant to start from seed, germination can be a slower process than other herbs. Sow seeds directly into garden soil, three to four weeks before the last frost. For a speedier germination, soak parsley seeds overnight before sowing them. I like to start my parsley seeds indoors, 2 1/2 to 3 months before the last frost, in order to get ahead and have larger plants to start off the growing season.

How to Cultivate Parsley

  • Soil: Plant parsley in moist, loamy, well-turned soil. Incorporate rich compost early in the growing season, just as you’re planting your parsley.
  • Sun: Parsley does well in both full-sun and part-sun environments. If you’re planting parsley indoors, be sure to grow it near a sunny window.
  • Water: Although parsley grows its best in moist soil, it is relatively drought-tolerant. Translation? Parsley is pretty adaptable.
  • Spacing: If you’re starting parsley from seed, thin to 9″ apart. If you’re transplanting seedlings or small plants, go ahead and space 9″ apart, as well.
  • Companion planting: Plant parsley next to tomatoes, corn, and asparagus. If you have roses in your garden, planting parsley nearby enhances the health and aroma of your roses.
(Image credit: Jayme Henderson)

How to Harvest Parsley

The harvesting cycle for parsley is a little different, since it is a biennial. The first year, harvest parsley for its leaves, choosing stalks furthest out from the plant’s center. Leave the inner stalks and leaves, so the plant can keep growing. The second year, the leaves will be sparse and may be less flavor-intense. You may use them, but you may also let the parsley bloom. Bees love the blossoms. Collect the seeds to sow the following spring.

In the fall of that second year, harvest the parsley’s root. It is actually the most flavorful portion of the entire plant! A particular cultivar of parsley, Hamburg, is known for the most flavorful root. Shave raw parsley root over salads for a great crunch and intense flavor.

Don’t toss those stems! Did you know that parsley’s stems are more potent in flavor than its leaves? So the next time you put portobellos on the grill and make a batch of chimichurri or pesto, incorporate the stems for great texture and exceptional flavor.