Italian flat-leafed parsley (Petroselinum crispum) and cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) make first-rate additions to winter gardens in our USDA Zone 8b.
Italian flat-leaf parsley is a biennial plant with bright green, feather-like leaves. Its flavor is considered superior to its sibling, curly-leaved parsley, usually used to garnish food. Cooks use parsley to reduce the need for sodium in recipes and to supply vitamins A and C to a variety of dishes.
It’s best to plant parsley in the fall as a transplant; wait until the weather is cooling down. It will survive very cold temperatures, providing greens for sauces, salads, cooked and raw dishes all winter long. Come springtime, it will briefly grow sparse leaves and then will throw up a flower stalk. After the plant flowers, its leaves usually become quite bitter — but don’t remove the flowering plant. The flowers are attractive and essential, especially to pollinators, including bees and flies, who will visit them for weeks until the plant dies a natural death. A special reward for keeping the plant in the garden will appear several weeks or even a couple of months later when its seeds — often scattered over a 3-foot circumference in the soil — begin to grow. The new seedlings can be left alone, carefully dug and potted up to move to a different part of the garden, or given to friends and neighbors.
Parsley needs full sun exposure (a minimum of 6 hours) in the fall and winter months to reach its full size. Like most herbs, it will grow well in raised beds with well-drained soil. A soil pH range of 6 to 7.5 is suitable for most herbs, although some, like rosemary and lavender, prefer a more alkaline soil of around 7.5. Because parsley tends to be heavily harvested, it may need fertilizer on a regular basis. Consider using a combination of fish emulsion and seaweed concentrate every two weeks. If the soil is heavy in clay, amend it with compost before planting, taking care to mix the compost thoroughly into the first foot of soil. After setting the transplant, mulch the bed with shredded bark. Parsley responds well to a moist soil as long as it drains well. If the parsley is grown in a container, which it adapts to readily, check the moisture frequently to make sure it hasn’t dried out.
The larva of the black swallowtail butterfly may decide to choose your parsley plant as its main meal before entering the chrysalis phase and undergoing metamorphosis. If you notice your plant losing leaves, be sure to check it for the presence of a larva before spraying it with an insecticide. The leaf miner, a tiny but persistent pest, also likes parsley. If you notice thin, squiggly lines in the plant’s leaves, it may be the miner. Rather than spraying, simply pick off the affected leaves and keep the plant fertilized to stimulate new growth.
Cilantro is another must-plant herb for the winter garden. In cultivation for at least 5,000 years, this plant is sometimes called Chinese parsley because it is used as a flavoring agent in many types of Asian (and Mexican) foods. The fresh leaves of the plant give it its name, while its seeds are called coriander. The seeds can be harvested and dried to use in Mexican and Asian dishes. Like parsley, it’s best set out as a transplant into a sunny spot in the fall, after hot weather has faded. But be careful — cilantro does not transplant well, so set it into the amended soil very carefully and water it in. Cilantro is an annual. It will grow for several weeks, then throw up flower stalks that — like those of parsley — are relied upon by pollinators for pollen, so don’t remove the plant when it flowers. Seeds will eventually form and scatter in a pattern near the parent plant, so you may well end up with a small forest of cilantro when cool and moist soil encourages the seeds to germinate (see photo).
Keep your eye out for aphids on cilantro. If you find them, wash them off with a stream of water. Be prepared to repeat the washing if the aphids persist. If they persist after repeated washings, spray them with insecticidal soap. Cilantro in the home garden during the cool part of the year shouldn’t be bothered by many pests.
These two excellent herbs will survive in the garden until the weather heats up in the spring.