I like to grow celery to enjoy fresh at the table, which is best accomplished by growing two types of celery. Cold-hardy cutting celery (Apium graveolens var. secalinum) grows as a true biennial, providing a generous crop of crisp, hollow stalks in spring and again in fall. For summer harvest, I grow three or four plants of regular celery (Apium graveolens), and treat them as cut-and-come again vegetables rather than holding out for big hearts.
Both types of celery can be grown from seed started indoors in spring. Tiny celery seeds are slow to sprout and grow, but growing celery seedlings is worth the bother if you seldom see them offered for sale in your area. You will almost certainly need to start from seed with lesser-known cutting celery, but you may need to plant it but once. When properly managed, cutting celery easy establishes itself as a reseeding biennial, producing umbels of white flowers in summer which give way to a rain of little celery seeds (yes, the edible kind). When I allow only one large cutting celery plant to stand until it sheds its seeds, I see plenty of volunteer plants for the next two years.
Growing Celery From Seed
Recently a gardening friend expressed an interest in growing celery until he saw the miniscule size of the seedlings and heard how long it takes to grow them – up to 90 days from seed to transplant size, though the seedlings can be transplanted a bit earlier in favorable weather. Although tiny, both types of celery seedlings are sturdy little things that are easy to harden off and transplant. But then another slow time comes for the celery gardener, because the seedlings often do not resume steady growth for three weeks. All the while they must be kept weeded and provided with enough water to keep the soil constantly moist.
Once established, cutting celery grows a large root system that does a good job of finding and using water, so the plants require no special care in the garden. However, summer celery depends on a taproot that functions best in moist soil, and the stalks taste sweetest if they are deprived of light for two to three weeks before harvesting. These needs can be addressed in the garden by using a soaker hose frequently through the summer, and binding the plants with strips of cloth to block light to the hearts.
Indeed, if I wanted celery that looks like its supermarket counterpart, I would need to always use self-blanching varieties, hill up soil and mulch around the base of the plants, and grow them in heavily fertilized, mucky-wet soil. Growing celery in my garden changed my thinking on this. When grown in fertile, organically-enriched soil and provided with regular water, unblanched celery plants grow into a spray of crisp stalks, which can be cut as needed for the kitchen. Lately I’ve been enjoying an old heirloom called Giant Red, which is anything but self-blanching, but it’s a tremendous producer of crisp inner stalks with red color that looks great in cold salads.
Growing Celery in Containers
Summer celery has proven to be an excellent veggie to grow in containers. One plant will grow nicely in a 12-inch (30 cm) wide plastic pot, or you can grow several plants together in planters made from plastic storage bins (use the lid as a watering tray). Celery needs more water than other plants, so they benefit greatly from the moisture-retentive properties of plastic containers.
Regardless of what you may have heard, re-growing celery from the store will not get you a healthy, productive plant. Instead, a few small stalks will grow from the nutrient reserves in the basal tissues, and then the party will come to an abrupt end as the mother crown starts to rot.
A better approach is to grow real celery two ways, using the dark green stalks from cutting celery during the first half of the growing season, with traditional celery taking over from midsummer until fall. It’s the best way I know to have fresh celery available for kitchen duty day after day, all season long.
By Barbara Pleasant