“A NORTH-COUNTRY saying is that parsley will grow best if sown by the lady of the house before 12 noon on Good Friday.” So quotes Roy Vickery in his Dictionary of Plant-Lore. Roy, a former curator of flowering plants at the Natural History Museum, believes parsley to be associated with more superstitions than any other garden plant, except possibly the apple tree. It is said that parsley grows best in households where the wife wears the trousers.
Folklore can be outmoded on so many levels, and it is hard to see how relationship dynamics can affect the cultivation techniques of a herb. But it can also have some grounding in horticultural science. Garden lore suggests that parsley seed must visit the devil several times (it varies regionally) before it germinates.
Hell or no hell, wide variations in temperature appear to help break seed dormancy. Typical spring weather with wide diurnal fluctuations achieves this to some extent, but the effect can be enhanced by bringing pots or modules of sown seed into a heated home during the day, and leaving them out at night. Pouring boiling water from a kettle along a seed drill, while sounding extreme, can work in a similar way.
Jekka McVicar runs what she calls a herbetum, displaying more than 300 different culinary herbs. Her collection has been built up over 30 years, and her show-stands have won countless awards. I asked Jekka for her top parsley tips. She made the point that, as is typical of members of the carrot/celery family known as Apiaceae, seed loses viability quickly; so it is important to use the freshest seed you can find, or germination rates will be low.
Parsley is a biennial. Sow in spring for summer use, and then in August to see you through the winter. In the second case, the first hint of autumn chill at night will provide the useful wide temperature variations, and there is the advantage of the carrot-root-fly season being over. Earlier sowings may show signs of attack: stunted growth and red/yellow leaf discolouration. You can prevent the adult flies laying their eggs by covering with horticultural fleece.
Parsley, along with mint and chives, is a herb that grows well in the moister shadier corners of a garden. It resents root disturbance, so, if not sown where it is to remain, plants grown individually in modules are easier to transplant than a crowded bunch of seedlings in a pot. Both the curly and flat-leaved forms are hardy in a typical British winter. A cloche is advisable if severe weather is forecast.
Parsley can garnish a garden as well as a plate. The notably bright green leaves look amazing teamed with the orange flowers of calendula, and plants can form the perfect edging to a path or formal herb garden. This year, for the first time, Jekka is designing a full-scale garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. It is for St John’s Hospice, and will be relocated there after the show.
I am looking forward to it more than anything else at Chelsea, and I wouldn’t mind betting that it features a fair few parsley plants.