From Seed to Tuna Sandwich: Growing a Crop of Heirloom Celery

Celery vase

Celery, when raised in the home garden, can be amazingly flavorful, but many find it challenging and not worth the space. It’s true — celery demands more water and food than most any other vegetable you can grow, but this should not deter you. Homegrown celery offers a far healthier option, as it is more nutritious than any you can buy at a store, but your expectations must be adjusted. Homegrown celery won’t be exactly the same as those giant, (let’s face it, almost steroidal) crispy stalks found in the produce aisle.

What home-raised celery does offer is amazing, intense flavor and crunch, and if grown organically, you can get a much more natural option than what’s available in the market. After having a row of celery plants growing in your vegetable garden, you will quickly discover you will miss those months when you don’t have access to those stalks and leaves for flavoring most everything you cook.

The home grower has many choices when it comes to celery. Some of the varieties available are ancient, others are red or yellow, and some are grown specifically for their flavorful leaves or roots. Celery was grown by the Greeks and the Romans for their seed and leaves, for both medicinal and flavoring purposes. Most of the ancient varieties have been lost, but a few heirloom varieties are emerging in some seed catalogs. Look for curled leaf forms, red-stemmed types and self-blanching heirlooms to start with.

Stalks of heirloom celery

As a commercial crop, celery uses a tremendous amount of natural resources, namely water and fertilizer. I won’t lie to you; achieving those thick, crispy, crunch-worthy stems to stuff and garnish is unrealistic, but you can come close with proper cultivation techniques. Here is how I raise my celery.

Choose your location based on your soil type. Celery farms use a tremendous amount of water, so fields are usually near rivers or irrigation ponds. The best location for celery is in flood plains where rivers once ran. The home gardener should prepare a raised bed or garden row free from rocks, with an enriched soil that is high in clay or muck rather than sand. The key here is moisture capacity. When grown in a raised bed, you may wish to dig a trench and bury a soaker hose that you can run for an hour each day. It’s hard to overwater celery.

Celery seed

1. Select the proper seed.

Most commercial seed catalogs carry disease-resistant hybrids that are also self-blanching (meaning that the inner stems will be lighter in color and milder in flavor). Self-blanching types are the best for fresh eating. When it comes to celery flavor, opt for green or heirloom red types, as they have the highest concentration of flavor. If you wish to use the crop mostly for soup, stocks or salads, you may wish to try a type grown for its foliage.

Closeup of heirloom celery stalks

Red celery may seem exotic, but many believe that this is the closest variety to ancient celery. Like tomatoes, celery can suffer from Fusarium, so you may be safest with growing the most disease-resistant hybrids, such as Picador, Matador and Ventura (don’t worry, there are no GMO celery varieties developed by science, but there are a few open-pollinated types which are organic, such as Calypso).

Celery seedlings

2. Sow seed very early, indoors.

Sow celery seed in a sterilized soilless commercial-grade potting mix in sterilized or new seed trays. Start seed in early February, or at least 10 to 12 weeks before you plan to transplant seedlings outdoors. Just count back from your local frost-free date. Cover the seed with a thin layer of soil or vermiculite so that it is 1/8 inch deep. The seed needs darkness to germinate. The ideal seed germination temperature for celery is 75 degrees F, so a heating mat may be required. After the seedlings emerge, you can reduce the temperature to about 60 to 70 degrees (16 to 21 C). If you grow seedlings under an artificial light system, you may achieve this temperature range naturally.

Celery seedlings handle transplanting well, so plan on pricking-out and transplanting seedlings into individual containers by the time that they have formed their first pair of leaves. The goal here is to avoid stress from drying out, from growing together too thickly or from a lack of nutrients. Keep celery seedlings well watered, allowing them to dry a bit between waterings, and apply a light 10-10-10 fertilizer weekly (1 tablespoon of a water-soluble brand to 1 gallon of water). Don’t be afraid to feed your plants. Fertilizer is like giving your plants a vitamin pill. You want them to have “strong bones and a healthy body” to “be athletic and lean.”

Temperature Shifts

You would think that celery, being a great winter-hardy crop, could be planted outdoors earlier in the spring, like lettuce and beets, but this is a common mistake many gardeners make. Although mature celery can handle end-of-season light freezes with little physical harm, when young celery plants are exposed to cold (let’s say below 50 degrees F), a chemical response occurs that triggers young plants to bolt, or go to seed, early in their growing season. This is why you must be very careful when buying celery seedlings that have been grown in a cell pack at the nursery. More often than not, they have been raised in the same cool greenhouse as cabbage, lettuce and cauliflower and not kept with the warmer growing crops like peppers, eggplants and tomatoes. By raising your own, you can ensure excellent results because you are controlling the thermostat.

Celery seedling

3. Transplant outdoors when all chance of frost has past.

Celery plants continue to delight in warmth, so do not set out your plants until the young leaves are on the trees, or in late May. If a seedling has grown too large (and yes, there is such a thing when it comes to celery – let’s say any seedling larger than 8 inches), you run the risk of having the plant bolt. Transplanted seedlings must be watered well, continuing to use a liquid balanced fertilizer. After they are in the ground (don’t worry, the hardest part is over!), the only thing left to do is to provide them with plenty of water and, of course, nutrients to encourage uninterrupted, stress-free growth.

Watering celery seedlings

4. Continue to water well and fertilize on a schedule.

Now put your agricultural hat on. Celery has few pests and only a few viral diseases, but avoiding stress is critical — especially stress caused by a lack of water. Even a single day without water can stunt a plant and cause woodiness or hollow stems. Water plants well every other day for at least one hour, and fertilize once a week either with a scratch of granular 10-10-10 around each plant or with a liquid feed.

Celery is the only home crop where I apply Epsom Salts to the soil in addition to granular fertilizer. Celery is a magnesium-hungry crop. The vegetable itself is a good source of magnesium, so the plant also demands it from the soil. Even commercial growers add extra magnesium sulfate to their celery crops, as it helps the stems to not become pitchy or hollow or to split. Using 2 tablespoons per 1 gallon of water per 5-foot-by-10-foot bed as a foliar spray or dissolved in water and watered in at the base of every plant every week should suffice. Avoid over treating with magnesium, as it can interfere with the uptake of other nutrients.

You may also wish to blanch your celery plants by wrapping the stem bundle with heavy, opaque paper, but this method has fallen out of favor as modern self-blanching varieties have dominated the market. If you are growing an heirloom variety that is not self-blanching (such as an heirloom red-stemmed type), then you may wish to wrap the entire plant with an opaque paper either from waxed milk cartons or roofing paper. A bundle tied for two weeks should be sufficient, and be sure that the top is open, allowing the foliage to emerge and to encourage air circulation.

Closeup of a head of celery

5. By mid to late summer, you’re ready to start harvesting your celery.

Celery is one of those crops that is like both an herb and a vegetable. In many ways, the home cook will be harvesting celery all summer long. A few leaves or outer stems added to a tuna salad or a soup stock will often provide as much celery flavor than an entire stalk or two of supermarket celery. If any plant appears to be forming a central stem, then your plant is starting to bolt. Harvest your plants before this happens, or as soon as you see a flower stem emerging. The rest of the celery bundle will still be delicious.

Closeup of celery stalks

By late summer, the time will come when you will want to harvest the entire crop. Certainly you will need to harvest before a killing frost. The best time to cut celery is in the evening or early morning. Pull the entire plant firmly out of the ground by its roots or cut the entire bundle just at ground level. Have a bucket of cool water ready in which to plunge the entire cut plant.

Closeup of a head of celery in a vase

6. Crisp in water well and crunch away.

When in the kitchen, remove the root stalk with a sharp knife and trim away any yellowing leaves and perhaps a few of the outer stems. Wash the entire head again in the sink, and then plunge the plants into either a large tub of cold water or in the sink for at least six hours (or overnight). This will ensure the maximum hydration and help you avoid wilting. Well-soaked celery becomes more mild.

In the 19th century, celery vases were all the rage in Europe and in America. A vase, with an entire head of celery in it, provided dinner guests with fresh, crispy celery in a time before refrigeration. Celery was one of the only fresh vegetables offered with meals. Take a cue from this reality, and either offer your celery well crisped on a tray or in a celery vase (any vase will do).

I hope this gives you a new appreciation for the lowly celery and inspires you to try a crop in your home garden.

Photo credits: Matt Mattus

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