Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is one of the most popular culinary herbs. Even when people aren't using it to flavor dishes, it often ends up on plates as a garnish. The bright green biennial plant features attractive feathery foliage, and like many other herbs, it hails from the Mediterranean. It's also related to other plants in the Apiaceae plant family, such as dill, fennel and carrots.
While parsley is a biennial, it's usually grown as an annual in herb gardens. The yellow-green flowers attract pollinators and beneficial insects. However, you won't want to harvest parsley after it blooms because the flavor tends to go downhill. Unlike some high-maintenance garden herbs, parsley is a low-pressure, no-fuss plant.
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Best Uses for Parsley
Parsley is the queen of the kitchen herb garden. People usually grow it for its culinary applications. You can preserve parsley by drying or freezing it, or you can eat it fresh. Fresh parsley has a much more herbaceous flavor than the dried form. Use fresh parsley to garnish dishes or to flavor soups, salads, potato dishes and stews. It's also a yummy herb to add to sauces and is a must-have ingredient for making homemade falafel.
Both curly leaf parsley and flat-leaf parsley varieties can be used in cooking. Some recipes call for a specific type, but they can ultimately be used interchangeably in most cases. Italian parsley (Petroselinum crispum var. neapolitanum) has flat leaves and looks a whole lot like cilantro but with a distinctly different flavor. Curly or common parsley grows quicker than flat-leaf varieties. It's often used as a decorative element in cooking, but it tastes great too.
Besides the flavor it adds to food, parsley is packed with vitamins like vitamins A, C and B complex. It also contains minerals like iron and manganese. You can chew on parsley to freshen your breath. Be careful, though — if you're out in the wild without a toothbrush, you don't want to munch on Queen Anne's lace, which is a poisonous parsley lookalike.
What about in the garden? Aside from its traditional use in a kitchen herb garden, parsley makes a lovely edging plant and is an excellent option for filling up container displays. It also looks gorgeous when added to hanging baskets.
How to Grow Parsley
- Common Name: Parsley
- Botanical Name: Petroselinum crispum
- When to Plant: Three to four weeks before your last frost date or when the soil reaches 70 degrees Fahrenheit
- USDA Zones: As an annual in zones 2-11
- Sun Exposure: Full and partial shade
- Soil Type: Rich, well-draining soil
- Signs of a Problem: Leaves droop, feel limp and turn yellow or brown
- Signs of a Healthy Plant: Has perky, bright-green foliage
How to Start Parsley From Seed
If you live somewhere with a long, hot growing season, you might be able to get away with direct-seeding parsley, but most people need to start seeds indoors. Like many herbs, parsley is a slow grower.
If you're direct-seeding, sow seeds a few weeks before your last frost date. About three to four weeks before is a good ballpark. Parsley doesn't mind a bit of cold weather, so don't be alarmed if you don't notice sprouts right away. It can take several weeks for parsley seeds to germinate. This isn't a big deal for those with a long growing season. However, there are several other reasons your seeds may not sprout. Critters can gobble them up, wind can blow them away and some may be too old or contaminated with disease.
If you're starting indoors to get a head start on the season, sow seeds 10 to 12 weeks before your last frost date in the spring. Because parsley seeds are notoriously challenging to germinate, you can try soaking them beforehand to soften the exterior coating.
Don't sow parsley seeds too deep. A good rule of thumb when sowing any seed is to use the seed's size as an indicator for planting depth. Parsley seeds are pretty small, so you shouldn't sow them very deeply. Don't sow deeper than about 1/2 inch.
When transplanting outdoors — do this a few weeks before your last frost date — space plants 6 to 8 inches apart. Be very gentle when transplanting parsley. You don't want to disturb the delicate taproot too much and stress the plant. Also, don't forget to harden off plants before transplanting. Tender seedlings need to acclimate to outdoor conditions. The sun, for example, is a lot stronger than your indoor grow lights. Your little parsley plants need to warm up to the outdoors. Expose them little by little to their new living conditions, starting in the shade and working your way up to full sun.
Parsley gets along well with corn, asparagus and tomatoes if you are looking for some options for companion planting. Anecdotally, people also claim that parsley planted next to roses boosts their health and fragrance.
In What Zone Does Parsley Grow Best?
Don't you love a versatile, easy-to-grow plant? Parsley definitely fits the bill considering it grows well as an annual in a wide range of USDA plant hardiness zones (2 to 11).
If you live somewhere with freezing cold winters, you'll grow parsley as an annual since winter conditions will kill off the plant. If you want to extend your parsley plant's life, plant it in containers and bring it inside when the weather turns cold, though parsley can definitely handle a light frost here and there.
In warmer climates, parsley is a biennial. What in the world does that mean? It means the plant essentially has two growing seasons. In the first year, you'll enjoy nice leafy growth, and in its second year, parsley bolts, flowers and produces seeds, which you can save if you're so inclined. Allowing the plant to bloom encourages beneficial insects to hang out in your garden. Despite its biennial growth habit, most people tend to grow parsley as an annual.
When Should You Plant Parsley?
You should plant parsley in the early spring several weeks before your last frost date. In zone 5, this would usually be sometime in April. Parsley can take up to 90 days after planting seeds until it's ready for harvest (you'll know it's time because the stems branch out into multiple segments), so expect to start trimming fresh herbs around early July. Of course, all this depends on the particular weather conditions in your area and whether you're starting from seed, cuttings or transplants.
Frost dates are just an average, and they vary from year to year, after all. USDA hardiness zones are a great guideline for planting and growing schedules, but they're not a hard-and-fast rule.
Soil, Sunlight and Water Recommendations for Parsley
Seek well-draining soil that's rich in nutrients. You can add compost or organic matter when planting or transplanting to enrich the soil in your planting area.
Parsley is a sun-loving plant, which makes sense considering its Mediterranean origins, but it's also tolerant of partial sunlight conditions. If the summer is incredibly hot, it can stress all sorts of plants, including parsley. If you're growing parsley in containers, move the plants to a shadier spot to give them some protection from the all-out heat. Morning sun with afternoon shade is best. It's also crucial to water parsley during hot spells, especially if your plants are in containers. Don't water if the soil feels moist. Wait until it's dry before quenching your parsley plant's thirst.
It's best not to let the soil around parsley plants dry out, especially with young plants. Regular deep watering will ensure your parsley thrives. Watering at least once a week is a good schedule for parsley plants. You can also mulch around the base of your parsley to help retain moisture. Ideally, you'll keep parsley well-watered. However, it's not the end of the world if you skip a few watering sessions since parsley is somewhat tolerant of drought conditions. You'll likely be able to tell that your plant is suffering.
Both overwatering and underwatering can turn leaves yellow, but if you've neglected to water for a while, you can be sure of the problem. You can poke the soil with a finger to check moisture levels, but if you're not keen on getting dirt under your fingernails, buy yourself a moisture meter.
How to Harvest Parsley
You can harvest parsley at pretty much any point during its first year of growth. However, in the second year, it will shoot up a flower stalk and lose its coveted fresh flavor. To harvest parsley leaves, sterilize sharp scissors and cut stems as close to the ground as possible and start with the oldest stalks. Harvesting this way helps encourage new growth. Cutting from the top will stifle plant regrowth.
You can preserve your parsley harvest by using an herb keeper, drying the leaves or freezing them. Freezing is a great way to preserve the herby flavor of parsley. Just toss your harvested leaves into an airtight zipper bag and pop it in the freezer. Drying is an effective way to preserve parsley, but dried leaves don't pack the same flavor punch.
Common Pests and Other Problems for Parsley
Like other plants in the same family, parsley is a host plant for the black swallowtail butterfly. The pretty butterflies lay their eggs on the underside of the leaves. Once the larvae emerge, they munch away at the foliage. Watching these critters do their thing is neat, but it's also a bit of a pain. In large numbers, swallowtail caterpillars can completely ruin your parsley plants.
Thankfully, dealing with them is pretty straightforward. Pick them off one by one and fling them away from your plants, or drop them into a bucket of soapy water, where they'll drown. You can also offer up sacrificial plants to hungry swallowtail larvae. Plant more than you need and transfer any trespassing insects onto your trap plant. Other pests that can affect parsley include leaf miners and carrot flies.
Parsley can become stressed if it's in a container that's too small. Tall pots are preferable to shallow ones because parsley has such a long taproot. To prevent further stress, remedy the situation and remove any yellowed leaves. This ensures your plant doesn't put any additional energy into keeping that foliage alive.
Common Diseases for Parsley
Parsley isn't a very problematic herb, but it can pick up a few unpleasant diseases, including root rot, leaf spot and blight.
If you notice that your plant's leaves start to yellow, there's probably something wrong. Sometimes, things are out of your hands, like weather conditions that aren't ideal. When a plant becomes stressed, there's a risk that it will start to lose its vigor and healthy appearance. Some diseases than can cause plant stress include root rot and leaf spot.
Root rot is the result of too much water and/or poor drainage. To avoid this disease, never plant parsley on waterlogged soil. Leaf spot is caused by a fungal pathogen that causes yellow spotting on leaves. Eventually, the diseased leaves fall off the plant, which becomes weaker and weaker. Avoid watering from above to keep this disease from attacking your parsley plants. Blight, another fungal infection, cannot be cured. If your plants are affected, it's best to dispose of plant material right away to prevent spreading the disease elsewhere in your garden.
You can prevent these diseases by practicing crop rotation and never planting plants from the same family in the same area from year to year. Use irrigation hoses or carefully water from below to prevent your plants from getting soaked needlessly. Keeping parsley far enough apart can also help improve air circulation. Fungicides will work on some fungal infections, but they're not guaranteed to do away with all of them.