(Revised and condensed 2/20/11)
The difference in flavor between organic and conventional celery is so dramatic that I almost consider them two different vegetables. Some say it’s finicky to grow, but I don’t find it so. It just marches to a different drummer. It’s a heavy-feeding, long-season vegetable that needs rich soil, constant moisture in the top few inches of earth, and relatively mild temperatures. Celery is shallow-rooted, so under almost all circumstances you’ll need drip irrigation and a well-mulched bed to hold in moisture.
Seeding: Grow from seed, and get pelleted seed if you can because the seeds are tiny. They take 2-3 weeks to germinate, and should be sown 8-10 weeeks before last average frost. Soak seeds for a day to encourage germination, and be sure the cells’ surface is moist constantly. Celery seeds need light to germinate, so sow them shallowly. I drop the seeds in a cell, then just shake the tray back and forth briefly after all cells are seeded.
Growing: Wait for the weather to settle before planting outside when the seedlings are about 4”-6” tall. Nights shouldn’t be below 55 degrees for more than a few days or the celery will bolt. Plants take about 80 days to mature from time of transplant. Celery is a heavy feeder, and rich earth and constant moisture are the keey to good flavor. If the stalks are spindly, the soil isn’t fertile enough. If they begin to separate and wilt, it’s from lack of moisture.
Plant seedlings 8”-10” apart in the garden (some say more, but you know me), and we do this in wide beds (again) because the soil is so rich and these beds warm up sooner – and you get more celery per square foot of garden space.
Celery needs an adequate supply of calcium and boron to do well, so a side dressing of fish or seaweed emulsion every few weeks will assure this. But I hate buying fertilizers for the good earth, even organic fertilizers, so if your soil is rich in organic matter from many sources, you won’t need to do this.
Harvest the stalks by peeling a few off as you need them, or cutting off the entire plant just below the soil line. Stored in conditions of high humidity around the roots (wet soil, sand, or peat), and near-freezing temperatures (such as in a box in the garage) and celery will keep for months. We’ve thought to store it directly in the garden under a deep layer of mulch, but it takes too mulch to keep it from freezing. Save that system for root vegetables.
Cultivars: My favorite cultivars (as in tastiest) are Tango or Conquistador. But then grown organically, they’re all tasty. In fact, if you haven’t done this you haven’t tasted real celery.
Health: If you’re trying to lose weight, snack on celery. You’ll lose more calories chewing than you will gain by digesting because celery is 94 percent water, and the rest is fiber. It’s rich in Vitamins B1 and B6, Vitamin C, calcium, fiber, folic acid, potassium, and anti-oxidants. Eat the leaves as well as stalks in soups and such.
Recipe: Cream of celery soup.
Cook together until the vegetables are tender: I cup of chopped celery, leaves and stalks, and one big slice of onion or more (I prefer more).
Two cups chicken broth.
Mix in an electric blender. Add 1.5 cups of milk or light cream. Salt and pepper to taste, and a little butter is nice. Heat slowly and bind (or thicken, if desired, and you should) with a roux (1 tsbp; butter and and 1 tbsp. flour for every two cups of soup) There’s plenty of wiggle-room here, so go easy. Cook slowly until smooth, stirring constantly for about 5 minutes, then add a little hot soup, stir out any lumps, and pour this into the rest of the soup.
Serves 4 to 6, but I like to double or triple the recipe and freeze it in labeled, zip-lock freezer bags. You never know when the President (or your mother) might show up.