If there’s one single vegetable that has the ability to unite the favours of a dozen others, it’s celery. Its distinctive flavour (often criticised by those who don’t know how to grow it, or use too much of it when only a smidgen is called for) imparts a true freshness and zing to both raw and cooked dishes. Although celery is not difficult to grow, make one mistake along the way and the vegetable is often not worth using in anything other than soup stock.
The secret to growing excellent celery is to raise the seed yourself. When buying seedlings from a garden centre, there is no way of knowing just how long the plants have been in their punnets or what hardships they have been exposed to. Left to dry out or to run short on nutrients, it is almost certain that your seedlings will never produce good stems. Celery does not enjoy very warm growing conditions so if you live in a hot to warm region of the country, plant your seedlings in early spring or late summer. In cooler regions, treat it as a main crop and get in the ground in mid to late spring. In winter, if your climate is not too severe, you may be able to plant celery in the greenhouse or under cloches in mid-summer and, with some cosseting, keep it producing through the coldest months.
Sow celery seeds on top of (or barely covered with) fine, damp seed-raising mix approximately eight weeks before you will be transplanting the seedlings into the garden. Cover the seed with plastic or place the container in a zip-lock bag until germination occurs (14-21 days later if the seed is nice and fresh). After that, keep the seedlings well-misted with water. Because the seedlings are both slow-growing and nutrient hungry, mix a little liquid fertilizer into the watering container in the third week after germination.
In the place you plan to transplant the seedlings into, enrich the ground as much as you can with compost, aged animal manure, rotted seaweed, a light scattering of lime and a handful or two of blood and bone. Celery can take as much goodness as you can give it.
When transplanting, place the seedlings into a slight depression so that these thirsty plants are less likely to dry out. If conditions are dry, be sure to water the plants daily. It is essential to water them weekly with liquid manure if you want the stems to be fat, tender and juicy. If the plants are left to dry out, they will become tough, dry, stringy and bitter. Worse still, they will bolt and run to seed.
Guard your celery for the 3-4 months it takes until it is ready to harvest. If you have done a good job of caring for it, you can enjoy its fresh, mild-tasting stems raw in salads, stuffed with herbed cheese, or as crisp sticks for dipping into sauces and savoury creams. As it gets a little older, celery may not be quite as succulent, but it is still excellent in cooked dishes such as stir-fries, casseroles and soups. While the commercial method of harvesting involves cutting the entire plant from just below ground level, domestic gardeners will be more inclined to break off stems as required. To do this without damaging the plant, pull the stalk back gently and slide your fingers down to its base until it snaps off. Harvesting this way, rather than cutting the stalk with a knife, is less likely to encourage disease.
If you find yourself shying away from all it takes to produce excellent celery, try growing this vegetable using the Greek method. The Greeks seldom use the stalk of the plant at all but grow celery en masse, harvesting the leaves when the vegetable is only 20-30 centimetres high, and then using them in cooking much as we use herbs such as parsley and chervil.
However you decide to enjoy celery, don’t be put off this versatile vegetable by those who have had only bad experiences of growing and eating it.