I was foraging through my garden for salad a couple days ago when I made a discovery that made my heart sing. Oh, it is very little, hardly earth-shaking news, and decidedly apolitical, but it made my feet feel light like dancing. I have to tell it as a story though, so it begins with planting parsley. Actually, it begins with planting cilantro...no, as far back really as the lettuce. Oh, never mind! I have to begin somewhere, so it will be with the parsley.
In the only corner north of the greenhouse that receives any light (the east end), I planted a lone parsley and a lone fennel, and that was as much room as there was. The north side is sunless, and the soil is not the best because it has never yet received a nourishing load of chicken gold for reason that it is sunless and not a great producer anyway and, thus, low on the priority list. Usually, I plant a cool weather crop there like lettuce. In the winter, I have tossed a few field peas in for a cover crop, but they do not do well without sunlight.
The fennel did well and so did the parsley. The parsley, in fact, grew so enormous that it branched out three or more feet over the pathway causing me to work around it to my great inconvenience all summer, yet I didn't cut it back. I had my reasons. Now many people know, and I am one of them, that the caterpillars of tiger swallowtail butterflies live on and eat parsley. They will chew every leaf down to the stem and even chew on the stems when the leaves are all gone, completely denuding a plant even as large as three or more feet like mine. In years past, I have planted parsley with the intention of leaving it for the caterpillars of tiger swallowtails. In return, I have great numbers of beautiful, yellow and blue and black butterflies fluttering over the purple coneflowers (which I also have in abundance), and the effect is magical, pure bliss.
It was the same this year. I planted the parsley and fennel, and the caterpillars ate the parsley, but not all of it. There was enough of the plant that it flowered, copiously flowered, and I watched it. That is, I squinted at it when I was in the garden without my glasses, not sure when the flowers were blooms and when they might be seeds. I was watching for the seeds, because it was my intention to gather those seeds and save them to plant next year. Not ever sure, I waited until very late in the season to gather. I waited for a warm, dry day so my seeds wouldn't be moist, causing them to rot in their jar.
On the day that I gathered, I took my glasses and a pair of shears, and I lopped off the umbrels whole and gathered them in a loose, plastic bag, the grocery type. I used this kind of bag because I didn't want to seal in any moisture with the seeds. I then left the bag out on my porch in the warm, dry weather until I was really sure I wasn't going to seal the seed heads in the storage jar only to find that they had rotted. Operation successful. I have a lovely jar of seeds now, but that's not the story.
Now back at the plant, there is nothing but stalks and two umbrels of late flowers, which I have left in the off chance that they will produce seed before winter. The fennel beside it had faded back or been eaten, but with rain and cool weather, it is reviving from the root, so there is a lovely, ferny plant in that corner now, too. Surrounding the duo, there were the numerous seedlings of the cilantro, which is self-propagating on the north side of the greenhouse.
This is why I suggested the story started with the cilantro. The cilantro is my great success at doing nothing, that is, letting the garden tend itself, my ultimate goal of rendering myself nearly useless, becoming the mere, protective shell to the living production therein. I planted the cilantro years ago, a single row, but I didn't harvest all of it. Instead, I ate what I could from the young plants, and those that grew too bitter, I let them go on to flower and seed. Ever since, they have inhabited the waste space on the north side, sprouting at their leisure, cilantro at all different heights and ages and stages of development, varying only with weather and season. I harvest it whenever I like, because there is always enough save for the deepest cold of winter.
As I was saying, I was foraging in the garden for a salad, and there were cilantro seedlings in the path at the east end of the north side of the greenhouse. Being very efficient, I harvest any plants in the path first in order to preserve it (the path), and instead of just taking the tops, I pull them out by the root. I did this and did not detect the extremely familiar scent of crushed cilantro. To my delight, it was parsley! I tasted it to be sure, and it was definitely parsley, a small, but solid carpet of parsley seedlings from my denuded plant above it.
What this means is that I not only have a semi-wild, self-propagating stand of cilantro in my waste space, I have a lovely mixed bed of salad herbs, parsley and cilantro, requiring nothing on my part except the residual water from an occasional soaking of the garden proper and an annual weeding to keep out the trees and volunteer tomatoes in the spring and summer.
As I said, it was not earth-shattering news, and some people would not think parsley was such a great treasure. Of course, these same folks may never have grown their own. This variety (heaven knows I don't remember what kind, something flat-leafed) is very tender when young, not bitter at all, almost sweet with only a faint sharpness to entice the palate. It tastes fresh as dew! This is why I felt like singing and dancing in the garden and maybe I skipped a little on the way back to the house with a handful of fresh parsley and cilantro and maybe I sang a little bit, too.