by Steve Churchill
Celery is an extremely versatile vegetable in your kitchen, with a crispy texture, watery inside, and a subtle earthy flavor. Kids love it for “ants on a log” – raw celery chunks with peanut butter and raisins, and chefs use it in all manner of recipes including soups, tuna salads, appetizer salads, and to add depth to roasted entrees. Plus, it teams up nicely with carrots. So if you decide to grow celery at home, you’ll get to enjoy all of these healthy ideas.
Celery is a unique vegetable, as we actually can use most parts of the plant. The stalks can of course be eaten raw, while the leaves and roots are used for celery powder or celery spice. It’s a biennial plant, meaning it naturally dies two years from planting it. Don’t worry, though, as you can have celery for your kitchen in a matter of months.
Our earliest data shows that celery was cultivated by the ancient Greeks and Romans, but not for eating. It was primarily used for decoration, appearing in wreaths and other decorative foliage. It was also used as a medicinal herb early on. Finally in the 1600s, celery was grown in the Mediterranean as an actual edible food. It was brought across the Atlantic in the age of new world colonization and was widely grown by the 1800s in America.
Types of Celery
Today, the most popular variety of celery is the one that was first grown in America – Pascal celery (also called just “green celery”). This may be the most widespread and well-known, but there is no reason you can’t check out one of these other varieties in your own garden.
Utah celery is a thicker version, and Golden Heart is an heirloom variety. There is also the French Dinant, which has an earthy flavor and aromatic stalks, which is why it’s used in soups and has also gained the name “soup celery”. There are also some varieties with red or yellow stalks, such as “trench celery” and “rosso di torino” (“rosso” means “red” in Italian), and Gilded Celery, which has a yellowish color.
The first thing you should know about celery is that its roots do not grow deep. You should make sure that the upper soil is not depleted and has a good amount of organic material and nutrients. You should apply a 16/16/8 fertilizer before planting the celery, at a concentration of about half a pound per 25 sq. ft. One more very important soil preparation step is to include some bone meal or other form of calcium, as celery is very sensitive to this mineral. Soil acidity should be around 6.0-6.5 pH. Despite the fact that celery prefers to be cool, it can’t handle frosts (due to its very high water content), and it dislikes very high temperatures. So it’s best to start celery seeds indoors at the end of winter, which you can then transplant once the soil warms up and you get past the last frost. After planting the seeds, wait 2-4 weeks, until they grow about 4 leaves. Then plant them in the soil so that only the leaves showing above ground, and put them at one plant every foot.
To care for your celery, think about adding a layer of dark mulch to the surface near the plants. The dark mulch absorbs the sun’s energy, heating up the soil, while at the same time providing another layer of insulation to keep the soil warm longer and preserve moisture. This is crucial, as celery is very sensitive to frost damage, since it has a high water content. Make sure you are well past any frosts before planting.
Water-wise, celery requires 1 or 2 inches per week. Celery reacts to the amount of water it gets, and an under-watered plant will yield a strong flavor, but the texture will be quite stringy. So make sure you soak the soil if you don’t receive enough rain. Fertilize the celery again about a month and a half after planting the seedlings. You should also keep on top of weeds, as they can quickly dominate the celery’s shallow roots.
After two to four months, your celery will be ready to harvest. Look for a base diameter of about 3″. Just chop the stalks off at ground level to harvest, using the outer ones for cooking and the inner ones for raw consumption. You can store it in the fridge for up to 2 weeks, although the texture degrades a bit.
The main celery pests are aphids. You’ll notice curled leaves, indicating aphids have been around. To remedy this, apply a solution of soapy water and alcohol.
Besides this, you may see some powder mildew, which will appear as white patches on the leaves. Just trim the leaves, dispose of the mildew-covered leaves, and keep a close watch in the future. Celery does need lots of water, but make sure it gets some air circulation to prevent the mildew growth.
The last and worst celery problem is the aforementioned “black heart”. It’s somewhat of a mystery as to what causes it, but evidence suggests low calcium is the primary factor. What happens is the ends of the stalks and leaves wilt and turn black, and quickly spread centrally towards the roots. Black heart can quickly kill the plant, with little remedy. So the best solution is prevention .