It’s not just tasty and easy — it’s pretty!
For those of you who like to dress up your flower beds with some well-placed ornamental edibles (or who want show-stopping potagers) this is an oft-overlooked plant you can’t be without.
For those of you who like to eat — it’s celery! Of course you should grow it.
I don’t know how this veggie ever got its finicky reputation. After hearing dire warnings about how difficult it was to grow I avoided it for years. Eventually, I encountered a magazine article (from Taunton’s old, out of print Kitchen Gardener — you can buy the back issue, it is Feb/March 2000) that put it in perspective for me. I’ve never looked back.
One of the reasons celery gets its bad reputation is due to slower growth. It takes 80 to 100 days to get to maturity. Two things to consider:
- Celery is cold hardy. It can handle light frosts and will grow quite well under simple polytunnels. Anyone in Appalachia (and most other places) can grow it. It’s perfect for a winter crop, too!
- “Maturity” means great big plants. You can certainly harvest “baby celery” and enjoy it at any stage of growth.
Easy as any garden veggie to grow, I like to think of celery as having 2 different forms. “Herb celery” and “succulent celery.”
Herb celery (this is the same as Asian celery or cutting celery): Think of it the same way you do parsley (they’re related). If you just want celery flavor to add to soups and other dishes you don’t need any special preparation for your garden beds (that you wouldn’t already do for regular vegetables). It doesn’t even take up any room! Plant it around the edges of your other beds as a cut-and-come-again border.
Succulent celery: There are two versions of this, too. Watered down, bland grocery store celery is different altogether from vibrantly flavored garden celery. The succulent garden version isn’t difficult though, it just means more compost. Use a raised (or dug) bed about 8″ – 12″ deep filled with finished compost… or you can skip this step and plant a border of celery seedlings on the edge of a mostly finished (not hot) compost pile. Fat celery comes from heavy feeding. If you add additional compost or nitrogen rich fertilizer (like my slow-release organic recipe) throughout the growing season you’ll have very happy plants.
Consistent irrigation for either version is a must. Celery is very drought tolerant once established but it gets bitter if it has to endure those conditions. A good mulch will help (but don’t pile it onto the crowns of the plant).
Celery also gets a difficult reputation due to blanching. This is an optional practice — it is absolutely edible without it! I don’t do it but the grocery store versions are always blanched. Think of it as the difference between green asparagus and white asparagus.
How you start your celery transplants depends on your growing setup. If you have strong lights or a greenhouse, you can follow the packet instructions. I don’t have those things so I grow my seedlings on shelves right outside my front porch. When nights are too cold I bring them in. I have a long growing season so I don’t worry much about getting a slow start.
I also start my transplants in fairly small cell packs. Since they have reduced room to grow I don’t want to keep them in the trays as long. I only start mine about 5 – 7 weeks prior to the frost-free date.
Like carrots, celery is a little slow and erratic to germinate. Bottom heat helps (put the tray on top of a warm appliance or seed heating mat where they will stay at about 78 F.) I compensate by using an insane number of seeds (hah!) This also means I spend some time later on thinning them with my little bonsai scissors. I thin them to one per cell because crowded celery will produce inferior plants.
If you start them indoors be sure to harden them off before planting outside. Plant your celery where it will get afternoon shade if possible. You can put it next to a tall crop if you don’t have natural shade near your vegetable beds.
I’ve seen recommendations for soaking or scalding seeds before planting them, but I haven’t found it necessary.
You can direct seed in the garden but celery prefers warmer soil to germinate so it will give you a slower start. I don’t do it because the later spring days are too hot for infant celery seedlings and because the roly polies and slugs in my neighborhood have an affinity for munching veggie seed embryos. I have better luck when I plant out 5″ or taller transplants. You could try direct sowing under a polytunnel to get around this problem.
There are lots of varieties to choose from. I usually like to grow a red and green variety so I can alternate them in an attractive bicolor border around my other vegetable beds. For those of you doing intensive planting you can put them 6″ – 8″ apart.
I got so excited when I started with celery that I’ve grown multiple varieties every year. Here are some of the ones I’ve liked:
- Celery ‘Verde Pascal’ – Very green and succulent, generous packets from Seeds of Italy
- Celery ‘Gigante Dorato’ – This one is green unless you use blanching techniques on it
- Celery ‘Redventure’ – Red celery is beautiful but stronger tasting than green versions — except this variety
- Celery ‘Giant Red’ – High Mowing Seeds offers an improved selection with better color and vigor
- Celery ‘Utah Improved’ – Introduced in 1953, this sweeter celery doesn’t require blanching
- Celery ‘Golden Self-Blanching’ – A mild, pale colored celery
- Celery ‘Early Belle’ – Mild flavored and earlier than other celeries
- Celery ‘Conquistador’ – Large, tall green celery
- Celery ‘D’Elne’ – Very popular in Europe, tight growth causes self blanching of the heart
You can use your garden celery in any recipe that calls for regular celery, though you may want to use less of it since it does have a stronger presence. Here’s a salad recipe using garden celery:
Fusion Salad w/Celery
Serves 6 – 8
- 3 – 4 eggs, preferably true free-range
- 2 medium heads of lettuce, washed and dried
- 4 scallions, cut lengthwise in half and then into 2″ pieces
- 1 cup cilantro sprigs
- 1 cup chopped garden celery (leaves included)
- 1 tbsp minced ginger
- 2 small hot peppers, minced (optional)
- 1 – 2 cloves minced garlic + 8 cloves minced garlic (keep separate)
- 4 tbsp good soy sauce
- 2 tbsp fresh lime juice
- Approx. 4 tbsp peanut oil
- 1 block extra firm tofu, crumbled (if preparing beforehand, drain and freeze the tofu first for better texture)
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp sugar (optional)
- 3/4 cup hot water
- 1/2 cup rice or cider vinegar
- 2 – 3 tbsp roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped
- Put eggs in cold pan with water just covering them and turn on high. Once water hits a rolling boil turn the heat off and let the pan sit for 10 minutes on the burner. Drain and set eggs aside to cool.
- Tear salad greens into bite-sized pieces and mix with cilantro, celery, and scallions in a large bowl
- Peel eggs and cut crosswise in half. Remove yolks and mash them to a paste in a small bowl. Slice the whites crosswise.
- In a medium bowl mix together the ginger, hot peppers, 1 – 2 minced garlic cloves, soy sauce, and lime juice.
- Heat a wok or heavy skillet over high heat. Add 1/2 tbsp of the peanut oil and the rest of the minced garlic (8 cloves). Stir-fry until the garlic begins to change color and then remove it from heat. Add the rest of the peanut oil and allow to heat a further 20 seconds. Add the crumbled tofu and stir-fry until bits of the tofu become crispy and golden. Once this occurs add the salt, (optional) sugar, and hot water. Bring to a boil. Add the vinegar and reserved egg yolks and stir to blend.
- Pour the hot tofu and liquid over the greens and toss lightly to blend. Pour in the lime juice dressing and give it a further toss. The greens should wilt slightly (If this doesn’t appeal to you, allow the tofu mixture to cool before mixing it in). Transfer the salad to plates, mounded attractively, and garnish with peanut sprinkles and sliced egg whites. Serve immediately.