Grow It and (Sometimes They) Eat It

Gardening is full of surprises, especially for a novice like me. I became a Master Gardener in Washington County in April 2009. This is also my first year “seriously” growing food. For the past three years in Keedysville I grew a few cherry tomato plants and herbs. Prior to that, as an apartment dweller in Bethesda, I unsuccessfully tried to grow numerous potted rosemary and basil plants on the sunniest windowsill that I had.

Earlier this month, while examining the four flat-leaved parsley plants growing in my new, very sunny, square foot garden (4’x4′ raised beds following the “All New Square Foot Garden” method of Mel Bartholomew), I was startled to see a caterpillar.

Mystery caterpillar on my parsley

My first reaction was, “You don’t belong on MY food! I’m going to pick you up and squish you under my garden clog!” Fortunately for the crawling creature, I’m not yet used to touching caterpillars, and I wasn’t wearing gloves. The bug was saved by my second reaction–curiosity.

It reminded me of another caterpillar I’d seen last July in my native garden. It was so striking I sent its photo to my Master Gardener friend Marney Bruce, who promptly identified it as a Monarch caterpillar.

Monarch caterpillar

So I figured that this one might also metamorphose into an interesting butterfly, but was taken aback by a second creepy crawler on my parsley that looked REALLY weird.

Mystery caterpillar #2 on my parsley

Annette Ipsan, Extension Educator at the Maryland Cooperative Extension (MCE), Washington County, identified the first caterpillar. It had also shown up in the curly parsley we’re growing at the Washington County Demo Garden, and is a Black Swallowtail (unsurprisingly, it’s also known as “parsleyworm”). We think the weird one may have been an early instar–one of the younger growing phases–of the Black Swallowtail; though perhaps not, because it may be too large. Can you identify this guy?

Key lessons I learned from my experiences:

  1. It’s not very easy to identify caterpillars, but it sure is easy to lose track of time while trying! I didn’t know there are so many different kinds of swallowtail caterpillars, or instars, or plants they use as hosts. More about Black Swallowtails here and here. Note that these caterpillars can also feed on carrots, fennel and dill.
  2. Since I’m growing food using solely organic methods, the mother butterfly felt safe to lay her eggs on my parsley. As long as the critters don’t eat it all and leave enough for us humans, I’ll gladly share the bounty! (A few years ago, as my husband shucked corn I’d bought directly from a local farmer, he was startled to find a gray worm-like creature happily nibbling on the corn. I told him, “Cut off the tip with the worm, throw it in the compost bin, and let’s eat the rest. If this corn is good for the worm, it’s good for us.” And it was.)
  3. If I carefully wash my homegrown food, I’ll have delicious veggies that will be much healthier for my family than the (take a deep breath before reading this!) pesticide-sprayed-imported-from-other-continents-wilted-looking-tastes-and-smells-like-plastic stuff from the supermarket.

Having discussed the critters chomping on my parsley, here’s how we enjoy it:

  1. A handful mixed with salad greens, used as a condiment. Especially good with homemade vinaigrette. (Even better if the salad includes ripe homegrown thinly sliced tomatoes!)
  2. Finely chopped as a final garnish on a heaping plate of pasta with any kind of tomato sauce, or any kind of sauce built with olive oil and garlic. By the time the plate reaches the table the fresh parsley has warmed and wilted, and its essential oils are at their maximum potency.
  3. If you’re harvesting more parsley than you can normally use I recommend Tabbouleh, a flavorful and nutritious Lebanese salad I’ve enjoyed since my childhood. The parsley can be at center stage as in this recipe, or more ingredients can be included.

4 Comments on “Grow It and (Sometimes They) Eat It

  1. I found catapillars on my parsley last year and took one to the Master Gardener plant clinic at the National Audubon Society. It was quickly identified as a parsley catapillar (makes perfect sense). It was so pretty that I left the remaining catapillars on the plants. And sure enough they stripped the plants bear. I wasn't so tolerant this year when I spotted them. But I couldn't bear to squash them as they really are pretty so I tossed them into the lawn. So far, they haven't crawled back to the parsley. Liz

  2. Liz, I'm sorry that your parsley was all eaten up last year. I love what you're doing this year, which is to keep a watchful eye on your parsley while allowing the caterpillars to be… elsewhere! Fortunately my plants only had a couple of caterpillars; had there been more I might have moved a few elsewhere, perhaps to some dill plants I don't care that much about (there's only so much dill I can eat!).
    Good gardening,

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: