Grocery Store Gardener: Celery
This was the first grocery store plant I grew. This whole obsession began quite by accident about 3 or 4 years ago. You see, I’m quite frugal. I absolutely hate spending money for most things but especially for vegetables. I had recently purchased a bunch of celery. It wasn’t even a week old. It was already beginning to lose its rigidity. That certainly struck a blow to my wallet. I expect a bunch of celery to last more than a couple of weeks in the refrigerator.
I came up with quite a number of ideas how to return my wilting celery to a crisp state. I naturally turned to a cut flower technique. I found a glass container with high sides. I re-cut the end of the celery similar to the way I prepared cut flowers. I then treated my celery as any other flower arrangement. I dutifully re-trimmed the end every couple of days. I changed the water frequently. This first Celery grew though it took quite some time to establish itself as a plant. I learned much from this first experience.
Celery is an ancient plant. Long preserved pieces were found in King Tut’s tomb as part of a garland. Homer mentions Celery in both the Iliad as well as the Odyssey. Clearly this has been an important plant to mankind from a time beyond remembering. It was a common “weed” that men and beasts ate before being cultivated in earnest.
The first recorded reference to celery in England was in 1664. The plant found its way to England from the warm Western Mediterranean and North Eastern Africa through Italy and then France. Celery then made it to England from provincial French homesteads. The French grew a version we now call Celeriac. This type of Celery develops a large bulbous base. The leaves were used as an herb or fresh in salads. The stalks however were quite fibrous and only used in slow cooked soups. The bulb was the desired part. It was used in soups and stews. Celeriac was a vegetable product that kept through the long winter in a root cellar. It is now gaining popularity in the United States.
Celery is a plant that requires a long cool season of growth. Harvest is more than half a year from seed. It doesn’t like heat and drought. The saving grace is that this will grow in light shade. So even hot humid locations like South Central Indiana can grow this when placed in light shade. These plants require an incredible amount of water. They are heavy feeders too. Frequent watering with a mild fertilizer is the best way to grow these. A loose friable soil that drains quickly is better than a heavy thick clay soil.
The root system on this plant is extensive. Many sources recommend about a foot spacing. This may be a bit close. A greater distance between plants may be better. Consider upping recommended growing distances to about 18 inches (half meter).
Many growers like to blanch the plants as they grow by hilling. This has the effect of producing lighter complected and less fibrous ribs with a sweeter flavor. Hilling with a light mulch material will be better than soil because it will block the sun and let moisture wick away quickly. If you are fortunate enough to have sterile fresh compost this will be an excellent media because of the beneficial organic enrichment. Some claim there is a loss of nutrient value from hilling. The celery will certainly have a less robust flavor. This is a personal preference concern.
Celery grows well as container plants. It is easy to provide all the moisture and nutrients they like. A 10 gallon container is as small as you will want to use. A 15 gallon container or larger will be much better.
There are two easy ways for the grocery store shopper to grow Celery. The first is to look for seed in your store’s herb section. Because the growing season is so long, most Mediterranean gardeners grow this as a bi-annual. They harvest ribs the first season and harvest ripe seed the second. Celery seed is a popular herb. Potato salad wouldn’t be the same without it.
Look for organic seed as is generally the case when shopping for any herb seed. There are of course two reasons for this. The first is that while this plant has probably not been genetically modified why take chances. The second is how the seed was gathered, dried and prepared for storage. Organic foods avoid chemicals for processing. They tend to use low heat drying which doesn’t greatly affect germination rates. High heat can alter flavor.
This seed takes considerable time to sprout. Allow at least 3 weeks before expecting some to begin germinating. It is often a month or more before you will notice significant activity. Sprinkle the seed on top of your sterile potting media and just barely cover with a soil blanket. Keep the container from drying out but not soggy. Considering the lead time for germination as well the length of time for harvest it is recommended that you begin starting a new season plantings very early. A good time frame is New Years and most definitely by Valentine’s Day starting seed. This of course means you will need supplemental lighting until the seedlings can be hardened off and transplanted.
The second way is my preferred method for growing new celery. Each and every time you buy a bunch of Celery cut it from the leaf end towards the base. Leave a good 4 to 6 inches of the bunch for planting. Avoid taking off ribs until you only have the center of the bunch remaining. Even though a rib will not re-grow once it is cut, a 6 inch rib without leaves is still green, full of moisture and nutrients to furnish the middle crown with enough until the new ribs with leaves can take over for themselves. All those cut ribs surrounding the crown will certainly help. Small suckers are likely between ribs. Leaving the larger ribs provides the small suckers protection. Be sure to use your harvested Celery too. One can grow several generations beginning with an original bunch.
Bury this “stub of a bunch” so a good 2 or 3 inches is below the surface of the soil and the other half is above the soil line. Avoid re-cutting the base. Celery produces roots as well as suckers at the soil line. Re-cutting the base only hurts the new plant. That was the mistake I made with my first bunch of celery. I was cutting off new roots before they even had a chance to grow.
Starting with a stubby leftover bunch of Celery is a great way to re-grow a new plant. In fact you can do this repeatedly. However, once the Celery goes into its bloom phase you will not be able to easily stop the plant from blooming. There are some plant cycle reverse compounds you can purchase at your hydroponic garden store. It may not be worth your time and expense. You can either let the plant go to seed and then start a new plant from the seed or you can lift the plant, cut out the central crown trying to bloom. Now vertically slice up the remaining crown so that suckers with their own bit of root will grow on as a new plant. This last option is an easy way to propagate multiple plants.
Celery is hard to winter over in the house. Often they will attract white fly or aphids. Celery can be susceptible to virus and cutworms. Most have trouble with the first two pests. They suffer from them and lower household light levels during the winter. It is almost better to start with new stubby bunches throughout the winter from your cooking leftovers.
This is a great way to extend your buying power. Fresh Celery is full of flavor. Children love growing this because they can’t over water them. They are easy to grow too. Perhaps it is time to stop composting. Instead, re-cycle your food into new plants. Stop letting your wallet bleed to death and begin to grow your own food from leftovers you have from weekly shopping trips.