Growing celery seems to be something that many gardeners just don’t bother with. It’s fussy about water, takes a long time to mature and is readily available at the grocery. But home-grown celery, like many kitchen garden plants, is worth the effort.
The celery plant has a long history, first as a medicinal mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey, circa 850 BC. It was developed from a plant native to the marshy areas in the Mediterranean called smallage. Smallage had a much stronger flavor than the modern version and the stalks were smaller and shorter. It was used primarily as a flavoring agent until the 17th century, when gardeners and plant breeders began working to improve the wild plant. In addition, there is a root form of the plant called celeriac and leaf celery – similar to smallage – that is used as a flavoring agent.
Growing Celery in My Garden
Celery was once one of the few plants I didn’t try to grow. I thought it was too hot in my area. In this case my biases got in the way of my gardening, since it turns out I can grow celery. If I’m growing celery from seed, I start really early, as in about three months before the last frost. Seeds can take up to two weeks to germinate (which is one reason I failed at celery in the past – no patience!). Those plants are usually out of the ground before the heat really gets going. Even if they’re not, as long as I keep it well-watered and grow it in a shady bed, I can have summer celery.
I can also get a second planting from each celery head: cut off the base and keep it in about an inch of water for 10 days, then plant out in the garden when roots appear. This is much more my style than the seedling routine, as it means celery in about two months instead of four or five. Finally, I can start some seeds about July and let them develop in the cooler fall.
Celery will also winter over quite nicely, although it will go to seed the second year. If you want celery that’s more like the grocery variety, blanch it for about two weeks prior to harvest by wrapping it with strips of cloth, cardboard or something similar. Unblanched celery has a stronger flavor (sometimes even a little bitter), and in my experience the stalks are also smaller. However, unblanched celery has more nutrients, and the stronger flavor is fine for soups and stews.
Celery has anti-inflammatory effects, which makes it a good choice for anybody with a condition like arthritis. The plant provides riboflavin, vitamin, A, C, K and B6, pantothenic acid, calcium, magnesium, folate, potassium and manganese and phosphorus, and has lots of fiber. It’s also relatively high in sodium, which gives dietitians the collywobbles because they think we should limit sodium in the diet. I say ignore the dietitians and eat the celery.
William Woys Weaver notes that before the days of reliable refrigeration, celery was still stored through the winter. The plants were dug before frost, roots trimmed and green tops cut off. Then the plants were packed in dry sand and kept in a cool, dry place. If your winter temperatures run in the 30s and 40s, you can dig the plants and trench them in an unheated greenhouse. In mild climates you can also try overwintering celery. Come spring, these plants will develop seed stalks. At that point the celery is very strong and tends to be stringy. Harvest the seed for next year’s crop or for seasoning, and pull the plants for the chickens or pigs. I also like to dry the leaves to make celery salt or an herbal salt blend.
- Golden Self-Blanching is an heirloom variety introduced in 1886. It’s a good celery for storage, and as the name implies, doesn’t need to be blanched (for color purposes, anyway; blanching may make it sweeter). It’s a good one for fall harvest.
- Pascal Giant/Giant Pascal was introduced in 1890. It was developed in France and is a descendant of Golden Self-Blanching, with good, thick, light green stems. All celery varieties need plenty of water, but this one in particular is sensitive to lack of moisture and will quickly become hollow-stemmed. Best as an early fall crop.
- Utah was released in 1953 by Ferry Morse; it’s a typical celery. It had probably been grown for a much longer period, as the American Fork area of Utah was settled in 1850. Celery and sugar beets were the two major crops in the area. By the 1930s, celery became dominant as soil nematodes caused havoc in sugar beet crops. These varieties don’t need to be blanched and will be sweet if grown correctly (which usually means grown as a fall crop). Tall Utah is a more recent selection, but very similar.
- Tendercrisp is another modern though open-pollinated variety. Bred by Ferry-Morse, it was released in 1969. It has more resistance to boron and magnesium deficiencies than most celery and is also tolerant of western celery mosaic virus.