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Ways to startle parsley

Did Ogden Nash truly think "Parsley/ Is gharsley?" I suspect he just liked the awful rhyme. The man was a verbal plotter, but definitely not a horticultural one.

As for our plotters, if there is a herb that counts for anything, it is probably parsley.

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On the whole, though, thoroughly edible plants seem more valued than mere flavoring plants. There are occasional exceptions. Odd clumps of chives. A mound or two of golden oregano. Mint colonizing neglected corners....

Monty likes to cultivate basil. Bob O'Neill grows borage (or at least he has it in his plot, where it grows itself). The Macleods have a good thyme. I give a home to rosemary and sage, marjoram and mint - and parsley. But last year's crop is running to seed, and this year's sowing is a disastrous scattering of four spidery plants with dim career prospects.

The serious vegetable plotters, like Billy Fullerton, want all their ground for serious vegetables. But even he grows parsley.

I discovered this yesterday when I stopped by his immaculate plot for a few moments of sincere awe and a question. He is growing exactly 20 curly-leaf parsley plants, and precisely 12 flat-leaf parsley plants. In laser-straight rows, they are spaced a punctilious foot apart.

My question happened to be about parsley germination. Sown annually, parsley has a longstanding reputation for being obstetrically obstinate, for "not wanting to come out of the oven."

Even professionals complain about it. But I suspected Billy would find it no problem, and I was right.

"Simple," he said. All the same, his methodology contained a surprise.

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He sows the seed in a trench. He boils water in a kettle in his shed. He pours it on the seeds.

"On the seeds?"

"Right on them."

I knew that boiling water has folklorically been linked to parsley germination. Beth Chatto, one of England's most eminent gardeners, in a letter to another of that lofty ilk, Christopher Lloyd, (in the fascinating book "Dear Friend and Gardener," Frances Lincoln, 1998) confesses: "Whether it be an old wives' tale or not, I always pour a kettle of boiling water along the drills before I sow parsley." The crucial phrase, surely, is "along the drills" - onto the earth, not the seed. Scorched earth is one thing. Scorched seeds another.

However, I have now encountered the following, in "Folklore and Customs of Rural England," by Margaret Baker (Rowman & Littlefield, 1974). It is her concluding sentence in a section on superstitions attached to parsley. She has just mentioned a version of the country saying that "parsley goes to the devil three times before it comes up once."

She writes: "Boiling water (perhaps offensive to the Evil One) poured on the seed in the ground, produces germination in three instead of six weeks." She is actually quoting from a friend's letter.

NEITHER gardener claims this technique is tried or true. Billy Fullerton, whose pragmatic 1999 theory is that the treatment "softens the seed," boasts even greater success: His startled parsley germinates "in two weeks." More power to his green elbow, I say. If my second sowing is as bad as my first, I may try the hot-shock technique myself.

At least Billy isn't emulating one complicated herbalist of unknown period. Quoted in Eleanor Sinclair Rohde's classic "A Garden of Herbs" (first published in the 1920s, still available in paperback), that resourceful gardener said: "Steep" the parsley "seedes ... in vinegar and strew the bed with ashes of bean-water with the best aqua vitae, and then cover the beds with a piece of woollen cloth, and the plants will begin to appear within an hour."

Aw, come on!

*A weekly series about a municipal garden in Glasgow, Scotland.

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