Thoughts of celery often evoke memories of the peanut butter-smeared stalks, but celery could never stand on its own until I grew it myself. Fresh from the garden, celery offers an unequaled season of flavor, with succulent, crisp and tasty stalks that are solid — not stringy — and never taste sharp or bitter.
My first experience growing celery was many years ago during our market days. After sorting through the cultural myths and baggage, I came up with a simple plan geared toward meeting this vegetable’s needs. The subsequent harvests were so succulent that most of our farmers’ market customers didn’t even know that we had celery for sale, as it usually sold out within the first half hour.
So what’s the secret? It doesn’t involve trenching or blanching, that’s for sure. What it does involve are these four essential steps to growing tasty celery, along with a few simple tips that will ensure celery success both in the garden and in the kitchen.
Step 1: Tune in on timing
Celery is a cool-season vegetable and can be grown in USDA zones 2 through 10 — given the right conditions. As a cool-season veggie, celery performs best between 55 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. With the right conditions, the temperature can be pushed to 80 degrees. Extend the range on both ends with protection from sun, high temperatures, or a stream of cold weather.
A succession of weather fluctuations and cold nighttime temperatures below 50 degrees for more than seven to 10 days can cause celery to bolt. A run of hot weather can result in stalks that taste bitter, or are hollow and tough. And a heavy frost will knock out this veggie fast.
The growing season is a long one, with seed-to-harvest dates between 16 to 18 weeks. That’s why timing is so critical when it comes to starting celery indoors and planting it outdoors. Where winters are mild, celery is grown for fall harvests. Where summers are hot and winters temperate, celery is a winter crop. In areas where winters are cold, grow celery as a summer crop.
If you garden in an area that will allow, you can direct-sow seeds outdoors when soil temperatures are at least 60 degrees. But if you garden where the growing season is short, it’s best to start with transplants.
To start your own, sow seeds indoors about 10 to 12 weeks before transplanting outdoors. (Soaking seeds overnight in water before sowing will help speed up germination.) The best date to transplant outdoors will depend on your geographical location.
Transplant dates for warmer zones — 8 to 10 — run from September to November. In colder regions, aim for transplanting in mid-May to mid-June, or about two weeks before your last spring frost. In more temperate areas where winters are mild, set out transplants two to four weeks before your last spring frost. For a fall harvest, set out celery transplants when the weather is warm enough for peppers and melons. Just be sure to have row covers or sheets handy to cover your seedlings should an extended cold period with temperatures in the 40s or below arise.
Step 2: Choose wisely
It pays to be choosy when it comes to variety selection and your soil. You can keep it simple by choosing a self-blanching variety such as Golden Self-Blanching and Golden Boy. Though not classified as self-blanching, Tango exhibits self-blanching qualities. Other varieties, such as Utah, Monterey or Conquistador, can still be grown without blanching, though the stalks will be slightly darker with more flavor.
As for soil, a proper pH, good drainage and adequate calcium are essential.
A slightly acidic soil pH between 5.8 and 6.7 is best. Calcium is also important, as a deficiency can result in blackheart disease, especially when moisture levels are inconsistent. Your best bet is to do a soil test, adjust the soil pH, and add calcium as needed with gypsum or limestone.
Step 3: Plenty of fertilizer
Celery has shallow roots and thrives in rich soil that is high in organic matter. As such, it’s best to amend the top 12 inches of soil with lots of compost or aged manure before planting. Celery is also a heavy feeder and needs an additional feeding every few weeks from planting to harvest.
Compost tea, liquid seaweed fertilizer, fish fertilizer, worm castings, aged manure, or an organic fertilizer are all options.
Step 4: Water and mulch
Most of us know that celery stalks contain a lot of water, but it may surprise you to know that 94 percent of a celery stalk is water. That said, it should come as no surprise that celery needs consistent moisture during the growing season and especially in hot weather. The best time to water is in the early morning or late evening. Use a soaker hose or drip irrigation system when watering, as excessively wet leaves or stalks may encourage disease or result in the stalks rotting. A thick layer of straw mulch applied around plants will protect stalks and help keep soil moisture levels more consistent.
Now that you have the basics, the rest is up to you. The payoff is worth it.
Interested in more growing tips? Learn how to grow basil with Kris.
Kris Wetherbee and her husband, Rick, grow veggies, including succulent and tasty celery, in their Oakland, Oregon, garden.