Growing Parsley-It's More Than a Plate Garnish

Parsley is often used to decorate plates and make the meal look more attractive. But a wise person might want to pick up that piece of parsley and eat it. Not only is parsley high in vitamins C, A and K, it is also a good source of iron and folate. That sprig of parsley can also freshen your breath and aid in digesting your meal. Researchers are also studying parsley's ability to remove carcinogens from the body and to stop tumor growth.

In some parts of the world parsley has always been more than a garnish. In southern Europe and in western Asia, parsley is a part of many regional dishes such as hummus and tabbouleh. The roots of one form of parsley, Hamburg Parsley, are used to flavor soups and stews. You can grow this wonderful plant quite easily in the garden.

Growing parsley
Parsley is a native of southern Europe. It is a biannual plant. In the first year that you plant parsley you will get plenty of foliage for tasty dishes and garnishes, and in the second year parsley will go quickly to seed and produce white, lacy flowers similar to Queen Anne's Lace or carrot flowers.

Parsley is rather slow and difficult to start from seed, so gardeners may want to buy plants at a local nursery. If you want to try to grow your own parsley from seed, start about 12 weeks before your last frost. Parsley seed will germinate best if it is stratified. This means putting the parsley seed on a moistened paper towel in a plastic bag and putting it in the crisper of your refrigerator for a week or two. Then remove the seed and plant in sterile potting mix. Germination can take up to four weeks, so be patient. Transplant your seedlings outside in late spring. They can be planted outside before the last frost, after the danger of freezing has past. Gardeners can also sow parsley seed outdoors in the very early spring, when the soil is thawed but still cold. If you live in a mild winter climate, you can sow parsley seed where it is to grow in the late fall. Once you have parsley growing in your garden, leave a plant or two for the second year, when it will produce seed and reseed itself without worry on your part.

Plant parsley seedlings in full sun in the North, sun or part shade in the South, in well-drained soil. Don't over-water; parsley is another plant that came from a dry Mediterranean climate. It seldom needs fertilizer. If the leaves seem yellowish, a little slow-release, high-nitrogen fertilizer may be beneficial. If you don't want parsley to come back in the same place the next year, make sure you pull out remaining plants in the fall. In the second year you may harvest a little foliage, but the plant will go quickly to seed and then die.

Choosing varieties
There are two main types of parsley foliage. One is a very lacy, ferny, curly type commonly sold as moss-leaved or curled-leaf parsley. The other type has broader, flat leaves, similar to celery leaves, and is sold as flat-leaved parsley.

Hamburg Parsley has the flat type of leaves and a swollen root that is used in cooking. Curled leaf is the preferred type for garnish, and either type is good for use in recipes. Varieties of flat-leaved parsley include Titan and Italian Dark Green, and varieties of curled-leaf parsley include Forest Green, Krausa and Starke. Varieties of parsley grown for their roots include Hamburg and Bartowich Long.

Using parsley
You can begin cutting parsley leaves after the plant has grown enough so that you don't have to harvest more than 1/3 at a time. Parsley root can be harvested as soon as the roots are large enough. The harvested leaves will grow back, but when you harvest roots you generally destroy the plant.

Fresh parsley sprigs are used to make meals look more appealing. Finely chopped parsley is used in many Middle Eastern and Asian dishes and is often sprinkled on fish in European countries. The leaves of parsley may be added to any salad to add taste and vitamins. Parsley root is scrubbed and cubed and cooked in soup or stew with potatoes or turnips, although the flavor is not like either. Parsley is best used fresh. Parsley can be chopped and frozen in water for use in winter cooking.

Cautions
Parsley should always be harvested from the garden and not gathered from the wild or unknown gardens. There are several very poisonous plants, including poison hemlock, whose leaves look very similar to parsley. Parsley is a plant that contains oxalates. Oxalates can crystallize when they are concentrated in body fluids and could possibly form stones in the gall bladder or kidneys. People who have had kidney or gallbladder problems should consume only small amounts of parsley.

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