Celery in the ground

Celery is probably not one of the first things that comes to mind when you're planning which vegetables will go into the garden, but it does provide a wonderful companion for strong flavors in a variety of dishes. Celery has the unfortunate distinction of being the worst offender of the dirty dozen, topping out at 60-some pesticides that you can't wash off.

Good news, though. You can grow celery, minus the pesticides, in your own garden. And it'll probably taste better, too. Fair warning, celery's kind of a high-maintenance veggie to grow. It can be done, but it requires some dedication. Here's how to grow celery in the Rogue Valley.

Overview
Celery is a cool-season crop. It takes a fairly long time to mature, requiring about four months. It demands a specific temperature range, above 55 and below 75 degrees. You'll plant it in the spring and harvest in the fall.

Planting
You won't need to do celery starts until April; like carrots, celery is an ancient Mediterranean crop so fit for growing in our valley. Finding seeds or starts may take some doing, so start looking in early spring. The most reliable source may be a major mail order vegetable catalog.

If you're growing from seed, plant seeds in peat pots 8-10 weeks before the last frost date. Keep them between 60 and 70 degrees for germination, and keep the soil moist. Celery seeds may take up to 3 weeks to germinate.

Plant 3- to 5-inch plants outside from June to July. Plants at this size haven't developed taproots yet, and it's important to get them in the garden before that happens.

Where to Plant
Plant your celery in full sun, but keep in mind that you'll probably want to blanch them (more on that later) and one of the easiest ways to do that is to lean a board against a wall or fence and shade the plants. Celery also needs moist soil (it shouldn't be soggy, but shouldn't ever be allowed to dry out) so the stalks don't become tough and stringy. For celery, your concern is more with underwatering than overwatering.

Like pretty much every other veggie, celery likes soil with plenty of organic matter: rotted manure, compost, etc. It prefers soil in the 5.8 to 6.8 pH range, just a bit on the acid side.

Maintaining and Babysitting Your Celery
OK, you've got 'em in the ground. Now the fun begins. The key to growing good celery is making sure they stay cool and wet enough. This can be a challenge, since they need sunshine. Before you plant, have a plan in mind for shading your celery during the hottest part of the day.

Celery can be blanched (covered), or not blanched, and if it's your first time growing it, you might want to try both ways to decide which flavor you prefer. Unblanched celery is what some describe as "stronger" in flavor, and what others describe as "bitter." It's a matter of preference.

Blanching
Blanching a vegetable is simply the practice of covering it somehow. There are a number of ways to blanch celery, but here are two to get you started:

Try propping up boards that can stretch the length of the row - this will allow you to quickly cover all your plants.

    • To blanch a row: try propping up boards that can stretch the length of the row, which will allow you to quickly cover all your plants
    • To blanch individual plants: secure folded newspaper (or something similar) wrapped around the plant below the leaves with a twisty tie or rubber band.

If you're blanching individual plants, watch out for excessive moisture collecting under the covering. Blanch celery for about two weeks in the summer and three weeks in October, if your celery lasts that long.

Harvesting

Celery is ready to harvest when it's about a foot tall. You can harvest two ways:

    • Trim off outer stalks as needed
    • Harvest the whole plant by cutting it at the soil line

Entire plants can be harvested, which is advisable if one comes to the end of September and frost is in the forecast. Otherwise, the outer stalks can be cut away while the inner stalks are left to further develop. Once the plant is a foot or more tall, all of the stalks should be edible and the variety of color, texture, and flavor "snap" makes taking the entire plant desirable.

Note: Like cauliflower, celery can be blanched or unblanched. Look for varieties that do not demand blanching in order to keep the process simple, unless of course you are wanting the maximum interactive gardening experience!

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