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Celery arrived only recently in my gardens, but has earned a spot of high regard. For the first few decades, I focused on more utilitarian crops, potatoes, corn, tomatoes, squash and greens of all sorts. But a decade ago I began growing celery from seed, starting it indoors in late winter. Its culinary qualities rank it high on the list of cultivars that are fundamentally different fresh from the garden, rather than from the grocery shelves.Growing pesticide-free celery is another big draw. The plant is roughly 95 percent water, and readily absorbs and retains toxins. It is on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list, 12 soft skinned foods that absorb the most pesticides, just one more reason for home grown.Though an ancient plant, celery came late in the game to commercial production, and it was not until the late 1800’s that it found a regular place in gardens across the US. Wild celery is native to the Mediterranean area, and archaeological remains have been found in diverse locations, from the tombs of the pharaohs to remains from Switzerland that suggest that humans were transporting celery seeds as early as 4,000 B.C. Another variety of celery called "smallage" was present in China as early as the 5th century.
But research indicates that ancient use of the plant was for medicinal purposes only, given its small stalk size and bitter flavor. Medieval texts on herbal remedies suggested using celery for controlling hysteria, soothing nerves, and promoting restful sleep.Celery is a member of the Umbelliferae or parsley family, which also includes carrots, parsley and parsnips. Technically a biennial plant, it produces lush, leafy growth the first year, and in warmer climates is capable of winter dormancy to flower and bears seeds in the second. As a vegetable crop, however, it is grown only until plants are large enough to harvest Celery made its way to Europe in the 1600s, and with plant breeding efforts became a valued cultivar. By the 18th century celery stored in cellars was enjoyed by the more affluent people of northern Europe during the winter. From there it crossed the Atlantic with early settlers.But varieties of that era were less resilient, grown in trenches, and covered to blanch the crop to keep it tender and pale in color. That process was both labor intensive and costly, meaning the plant was often a luxury for the wealthy. Celery vases were a fixture of Victorian times as a symbol of prestige to display this expensive vegetable.Exclusivity ended with the introduction of “self-blanching” varieties in the 1880s. The result was a celery boom, built on the advent of Giant Pascal, a French variety discovered in 1884. Cultivation surged and celery became readily available at moderate prices. Today the vast majority of commercial varieties still derive from a narrow genetic base built on Pascal, with names like Mission, Sonora and Conquistador. California is the hub of production, accounting for 80 percent of the US supply, with 28,000 acres under cultivation.
Beyond its culinary appeal, celery has long been considered a “diet food,” with only 18 calories per serving of 110 grams (3.9 ounces), and whose consumption results in a feeling of fullness. While true, it fails to give celery the credit it deserves as a source of essential nutrients. That same 110 grams can supply almost half of an adult's minimum daily requirement of vitamin K, while being a significant source of vitamins A, C, riboflavin, B6, pantothenic acid, calcium, magnesium and phosphorus.As to cultivating celery, while not complex it does require attention to detail. It is a long-season crop, often requiring 100 days to mature. That may mean growing your own seedlings, both for variety selection and because celery is not always available at garden centers. And celery seeds are slow to germinate, so plan on getting started in March.The plant thrives in a deep soil, rich in organic matter to absorb and hold the moisture requisite for success, and a pH above 6. Celery is sensitive to temperature extremes, preferring cool, moist conditions, but seedlings are also frost sensitive. Best practice is to set them out in late May under row covers.A variety of insect pests can find their way to your celery crop, though often slugs, leaf hoppers and flea beetles do the most damage. Again, row covers offer an essential layer of protection. There are also common diseases, including root rot, early and late blight, and several viruses vectored by leaf hoppers. Good soil drainage, a weed free environment, row covers and proper crop rotation will go a long way in circumventing these issues.Newer varieties of celery are fairly upright in their growth habit, and do not require blanching, though that practice results in more tender stems and superior quality. Blanching can be accomplished by tying the tops of the stems together or covering the plants with a cylinder devised from several sheets of newspaper. A third method involves placing boards supported by stakes on either side of the row, covering the stems. Whatever the method, blanching takes several weeks.As to varieties, my current favorite is Tango, upright, early maturing and disease resistant. Here in early August I am harvesting stalks for salads and stir-fries, and in September I’ll dry a large supply of fragrant foliage for winter soups and stews. After that, if well mulched, the plant weathers remarkable cold, meaning a harvest well into the months of autumn.
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