Parsley: The Secret Garden Thug


Growing your own fruits, vegetables, and herbs is truly one of life’s pleasures.  Nothing beats walking out into your garden with a basket in hand, ready to harvest for your day’s meals.   Imagine a fresh salad of heirloom tomatoes and juicy cucumbers.  What about scrambled eggs with freshly picked tarragon?  Or how about making a compound butter with nasturtium flowers?  Local food doesn’t get any more local than your backyard.

Every year, the garden is planted, watered, weeded, and harvested.  Sure, it is work but that fresh food is worth the effort, right?  Each spring, seeds and transplants are given a home in your garden beds. Depending on the size of your garden it can anywhere from days to weeks to get everything in the ground.  But if you are like me, it is nice to find a few things that reliably come back on their own year after year.  Sure… there are fruit trees (apples, pears, cherries, plums, etc…), fruiting shrubs (elderberry, raspberry, gooseberry, blackberry, blueberry, etc…), perennial fruits (rhubarb, strawberry, etc…) vegetables (asparagus, artichoke, etc…), and then there are herbs (thyme, chives, sage, etc…).

But within your produce gardens  lurks a potential thug. It is an herb, leafy and green.  Nope, it is not mint (good guess, but that will be another post).  Believe it or not, it is parsley.  Just what do you do when a good plant goes bad?

second year parsley with flower heads

second year parsley with flower heads

Parsley is a biennial.  What this means is that it grows its first year, producing plenty of leaves.  In its second year, it will produce very few leaves, saving most of its energy to produce seeds.  But it is in the third year that this seemingly benign herb turns into a thug, overtaking valuable garden space and crowding out other plants.

For starters, parsley has a long tap-root, similar to a dandelion or a really skinny parsnip.  This means that if you choose to dig up parsley, you will have to dig about 6″ – 10″ down to get all of the root.

Next, when parsley goes to seed, it is prolific.  To control the quantity of parsley, remove the seed heads before the plant dries and releases all of its seed.  Sure, you can save some of the seed to replant the following year. With a little planning, you can place your parsley on a two-year rotation.  First year plants are grown to harvest (leaving a plant to go to seed).  Second year parsley is grown for its seed (though there will be a few leaves that you can pick fresh).

If you miss a few seed heads, don’t fret.  You can always thin out the parsley when it begins growing next spring.  But when you thin out the seedlings, determine just how many plants you need to satisfy your needs.  Does your family really need 20+ plants?  Is it merely a garnish on the plate or will it be minced and added to dishes to provide a bright herbal note?  But make your mind up soon.  Otherwise, you won’t have space for the rest of your garden goodness.

Parsley really is a wonderful herb.  Don’t let its thuggish tendencies scare you off.  Just remove seed heads before they release their seeds, thin out seedlings in the spring, and if it is still taking up too much room, don’t be afraid to dig it up.  With some time and attention, you can control this garden thug.



26 responses »

  1. Again thanks for the advice, I have both curly and flat leaf parsley growing in a tub, the flat leaf has gone to seed early so I keep snipping off the flower heads before they form .. I learnt something new today.. Thank you 🙂

    • Glad to help. I learned the hard way about parsley. Now we manage our parsley so there is a first year crop (for harvesting) and a second year crop just for seeds. Making parsley pesto helps us keep the parsley under control.

  2. I’ve been growing parsley for years, and I just never let it go to seed. I learned the same lesson earlier with fennel. I let it go to seed so I could harvest the seeds for culinary use. But of course I didn’t get them all, and I had fennel volunteers coming up everywhere. Catnip is another one that self-sows like crazy, and it is perennial as well.

    • We now keep our parsley under control by making parsley pesto. It is nice to have a few plants that we let go to see while we have first year parsley growing just for pesto as well as using fresh. We also have catnip, but our cats keep it under control. They like to bite off the blossoms before it goes to seed.

  3. We grow some parsley but it never does very well here, which sounds good since I don’t get it coming up again the second and third year. I had no idea it did that.

  4. Thanks for sharing this! I had no clue. This is the first year I have over wintered parsley. Now in know what to do and what to watch out for!

  5. I have all these dry places in my yard and parsley grows there with no water from me–just like mint! I let it do so because different butterfly’s caterpillars eat parsley. Plus the flower kind of look like Queen Anne’s lace. I do have to get ruthless with it in the garden spaces, but parsley’s nothing that a hoe can’t handle.

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