Celery – Apium graveolens
Celeriac – Apium graveolens var. rapaceum
Leaf celery – Apium graveolens var. secalinum
Both celery and celeriac are in the same Apiaceae, or parsley and carrot family, and have the same species name. Their cultural needs are similar, but for a very different outcome.
- Celery is a tight stalk, 40–60 cm/16–24 in high, bred for its stems from wild celery which is taller and thinner, its stems more fibrous. Wild celery is valued for leaves and seeds.
- Celeriac has been selectively bred from celery to achieve its swollen root. Sometimes it’s called root or turnip-rooted celery, but there is no relationship to turnip.
- Leaf or Chinese celery has thinner stems and a strong taste and smell. Its leaves, and sometimes stems, are used in soups and stews.
A head or plant of celery comprises many edible stalks and leaves.
The harvested root of celeriac is a bulbous hypocotyl, a swollen portion of root just above the main root system. This is similar to carrots and beetroot but not potatoes, which are tubers.
- Days from seed to first harvest: celery 100–130, celeriac 180–250.
Seeds sownReady to harvestEarly spring celeryHeads through summerEarly spring celeriacAutumn and to storeMid to late spring (celery only)Heads through autumn
Why grow them
Widely acknowledged for its health benefits, celery is even juiced to extract more of the goodness. I understand the reasoning but feel that this is a waste of valuable fibres! Chopped, homegrown celery stalks add wonderful flavour and texture, to salads in particular.
- Homegrown celery is high in cellulose or fibre, and needs a lot of chewing. The fibres are softened by cooking, and you can also use the leaves when making stock.
- Bought celery has usually been grown with synthetic fertilisers and maximum amounts of water to increase growth. The look is impressive and the texture is tender, but the flavour is less strong.
I value my celery a lot and miss it in winter and spring. But that is the joy of eating seasonally, how one values food far more when it’s naturally available. Plus it offers the nutrition we need at that time of year, and the microbes too.
Charles’ Celery Salad
I like this for breakfast, when celery is in season. In winter you could use a cup of celeriac instead, chopped very small or grated, and add lambs lettuce for green.
- 4–6 stalks of celery, chopped small
- 1 apple, chopped very small
- Handful of walnuts
- 1 clove garlic
- A little chopped onion, to taste
- A little balsamic vinegar and salt, plus oil if you wish
The dense roots are full of goodness and store well through winter, even into the hungry gap. They taste great in salads, grated or chopped small.
There’s a lot of flavour in a small amount of homegrown celeriac. Keep a large one in the kitchen, because even after cutting bits off they are good to use for over two weeks.
- You can also eat celeriac leaves, but they are extremely fibrous, except for the newest ones in the middle. Best use is to make stock or perhaps soup.
Pattern of growth
These plants are biennial, so they will not flower in the first year and just continue growing. Celery stalks, however, from the first sowing in early spring, become more fibrous by late summer. In autumn, celery is more tender from the second sowing in late spring.
If a celery root system or celeriac root is left in the ground through winter and survives frost plus the damp, it will make flowering stalks through spring.
Celery seed is a valuable spice and this would be harvestable in late summer, one or two months after flowering finishes.
Suitable for containers/shade?
They can be grown in shade.
Celery is the most worthwhile for containers since it needs less space than celeriac. Always beware of slugs, perhaps hiding under pots.
Types of celery
Celery used to be grown for eating in winter and early spring, and was called trench celery. This was from varieties that took a full season to grow large and were transplanted in a trench or furrow. Then, in autumn or early winter, they were mounded up with soil, to blanch the stems and make them sweeter.
This process involves a lot of work in the growing, harvesting and cleaning of the stems. Nowadays one almost never sees trench celery, although you occasionally see reference to it in seed catalogues or gardening articles.
I do not recommend blanching celery with soil, for these reasons:
- There is a lot of soil movement which damages soil life.
- The presence of soil around celery stalks often results in slugs eating them, and I suspect poisons were used to prevent this, although it’s not always made clear.
- It’s a lot of work!
The opposite of trench celery is self-blanching celery, although this term is now less used. We don’t need to differentiate it from the rarely grown trench celery. Close spacings mean that the shade of celery leaves do a fair amount of blanching to the stalks, making them less bitter.
Why the perceived need to blanch? It’s a good question and I believe this comes partly from the English aristocracy, who sought a degree of perfection in their vegetables and were even competitive about it. In my view, they did a lot of unnecessary work – or rather their gardeners did!
- They wanted sweetness and special flavours, while perhaps ignoring the rounded flavours and nutritional quality of unblanched vegetables .
- They had a large labour force with spare time in winter months.
- They did not know that some bitterness is good for our health.
I struggled to grow juicy celery until I discovered the F1 variety Victoria. It is streets ahead of the ones I had grown before, such as Tall Utah and Golden Self Blanching, whose stems, nowadays, are mostly smaller and less juicy.
- Victoria grows more vigorously than other F1 varieties. Hadrian is ready a little earlier and is slightly smaller.
- Granada F1 has resistance to Septoria, and I recommend it for the second sowing in late spring or even early summer – see the photo below.
- Loretta F1 grows a smaller celery, with a more yellow colour.
There are several varieties which grow pink stalks. Not really pink though, more just a pink tinge at the base of each stem.
I find Prinz always grows a reliably large harvest, and Monarch too.
Giant Prague, by contrast, has given me higher proportions of leaf to root. For this reason, be careful of heritage varieties.
In a taste test by Raymond Blanc and his chefs, they found little difference in flavour between several different varieties.
This lesson has three videos, one on celeriac here and two on celery below, both with much detail.
- Seeds germinate in 10–14 days, and have full cotyledons by about 20 days.
Emergence is slow and the cotyledons are tiny. Later growth becomes more rapid, especially from about three weeks after transplanting.
- These seeds require light to germinate – this is important.
Simply scatter seeds on top of pre-moistened compost, with no compost on top of them. Seeds are small – be careful not to sow too many. Place a piece of glass over the tray, or put it in a bag of clear polythene, anywhere with warmth and some daylight.
The warmth requirement is around 20–25 °C/68–77 °F, which you could achieve on the windowsill of any room that has some heating in early spring.
- Germination does not happen if nights are much below 8 °C/46 °F, even when days are warm. Hence the benefit of house warmth, compared to a greenhouse where nights are much colder, even though sunny days are warm.
Mid-March in warmth is a reliable first sowing date. It’s the only one for celeriac, which needs the whole season to grow large. Buying plants in May is an option if you miss the March sowing, or don’t have a protected space for propagation. Celeriac sown after mid-April/mid-spring will grow nicely, but the harvest will be smaller.
Celery matures by early to midsummer, and can be sown again in May for later harvests.
- Two celery sowings give younger and more juicy stems at harvest because, although an early sowing will stand right through until autumn, its stems become more fibrous.
- New growth in late summer and through autumn, from the celery sowings of early spring, happens mostly as side shoots – see below.
In warm climates such as Zone 10, a third celery sowing is possible during summer, for harvests into winter, as long as frosts are only slight.
- Before sowing, water the compost to capacity.
- Scatter seeds on top and be careful not to sow too thickly.
- Use a cover of glass or polythene over the sown tray.
- Remove the cover once the first tiny leaves are all there.
Why sow in a tray and not in modules?
- Seeds are tiny and almost impossible to sow individually or in twos. It’s much easier to scatter them on the surface of compost in a small tray.
- Germination to the two-leaf stage takes 14–20 days, during which time one seed tray needs far less of your precious warm and protected space than would modules, and for the same number of seedlings.
- After 20 days or so, it’s quick to prick seedlings into modules. The result is no empty module cells or uneven growth from patchy germination.
The cell size is best small, around 3 cm/1.2 in wide and 4 cm/1 in deep, because, as with carrots, growth at first is slow. A 60-cell module tray is ideal, and in spring you could, for example, grow 30 celery at one end and 30 celeriac at the other.
Seedlings benefit from the warmth of a greenhouse through April. They are not killed by frost if there is a cold night, but fleece over the trays will benefit them if that happens.
Potting on is not necessary, unless you are waiting for space to be available. You would do it at about six weeks from sowing, and into 7 cm/3 in pots.
An excellent average size is 7 cm/3 in tall, while smaller is possible. Better than plants being too large and with a tightly grown root system, which results in a growth check after transplanting.
Transplant time and method
May, or late spring, is the month for transplanting both celeriac and your first sowing of celery. Neither are killed by frost, and you can transplant them earlier. However there is no rush: plants suffer some damage to leaves in frosts of around -2 °C/28 °F, while growth is stronger once soil is consistently warm, from late spring.
Subsequently, from late June to early July is good for setting out transplants from the second sowing of celery. They might follow, for example, early potatoes, spring onions, salads and peas. There is no ground preparation needed, apart from raking level and clearing any debris and weeds on the surface, assuming you had spread compost in winter or early spring.
- Use a wooden dibber to create holes a little deeper and wider than the module rootball. Push the transplant in firmly – the lowest part of stems may be below surface level. Don’t fill the hole because watering will do that eventually.
- Celery can be as close as 22 cm/9 in each way, to have taller stems with fewer side shoots.
- Celeriac needs more space, up to 37 cm/15 in for large harvests, or 30–35 cm/2–14 in for medium-sized roots.
Between celeriac, you can interplant multisown spring onions, as in the photos below. They come to harvest within five to six weeks, just as the celeriac needs full space.
Growing care is mainly watering. After watering at planting time, give water again every two days if the weather is warm and dry. Then you may not need to water for a few weeks.
Start the main watering about a month after transplanting, and do it two or three times a week.
- Check soil moisture before watering – it may be drier than you expected if the celery is growing strongly.
Celery keeps sucking water out. It amazes me how much water the plants need, in order to grow quickly and with juicy stalks.
Water heavily in the ten days before harvest, unless rain is plentiful.
It needs much less water than celery, say just weekly in hot weather or on light soils.
- In an average temperate summer on heavy soil, you may hardly need to water celeriac.
Extra mulch to retain moisture?
For celery, in particular, slugs are a hazard. Compost mulch does not encourage them, so it’s best to use that only.
For celeriac, there is also a possibility of damage by woodlice, who breed fast in mulches with undecomposed wood and also in any decaying wood of old bed sides.
How to judge readiness
Harvest celery for tender stalks within four months of sowing, although they will stand for longer. The first pick can be of smaller heads after just three months. You can also twist, or cut off to eat, any larger side shoots from the outside of plants.
- Each sowing of celery can give six to eight weeks of harvest.
- Keep watering the remaining plants right up to harvest time.
Celeriac should be large enough to pull from October/mid-autumn and onwards. I recommend you harvest by Christmas, for less damage caused by disease, rodents and slugs.
How to pick
Use a strong and sharp knife to cut through the celery stem, just above soil level – each one is a lot of food. If not cleared, the root and stem base will grow baby celery which may or may not be worth it for the time and space needed.
Celeriac has many tenacious roots growing downwards from its hypocotyl. Use a sharp trowel, or even a spade, to slice through these, almost horizontally and just under the celeriac.
Small roots are fine to leave in the soil, while many others need trimming off the celeriac – see the photos for an idea of their number.
Cut off all leaves, without cutting into the root. After cutting to remove the main bulk of leaves, use the blunt back of a knife to rub off residual bases of leaf stalks.
Celery heads can be stood upright in a large cup or glass, with up to 2.5 cm/1 in of water. They draw on the water to keep their stems crisp. Cut off some celery to use as needed, for up to a week after harvest.
When storing celeriac, don’t trim the base too tight. Having some moist compost and soil between the many small roots helps to keep the tuber plump.
Celeriac survives some freezing, say to –5 °C/23 °F, but in autumn and early winter is more likely to suffer Septoria disease.
- Simply store in a box. You can eat celeriac any time until early spring – cut off all leaves and small roots.
Do this as for carrots: you need time, space, and skill
Which pests are likely, and when
- Slugs like celery, so, as with carrots, grow in clear open space, with minimal habitat for molluscs.
- Woodlice and slugs can tunnel into celeriac, so beds without wooden sides give best results.
- Rats and mice eat celeriac, which is a reason to harvest before winter and to store in a rodent-free place.
Keep any nearby slug habitats to a minimum.
Use only compost as mulch, practice no dig, and have no decaying wooden sides to beds.
A big problem can occur in autumn’s damp weather: ‘late blight’, or Septoria apiicola. It starts with a few brown spots on leaves, followed by rotting of large leaf areas.
- Eventually plants stop growing, while the Septoria stains celery stalks and causes celeriac roots to turn soft and mushy.
- I find it’s as hard to control as late blight on tomatoes, and removal of infected leaves makes little difference.
- In damp weather, from late summer, water less and only at soil level, and avoid watering in the evening. You want leaves to have a chance to dry from any splashing after you have mainly watered the roots.
To clear beds after a celery harvest, use a trowel to cut the largest roots just under the base, and clear the main base to compost. This leaves the main root system in soil, as food for soil life.
For celeriac, it’s mainly a question of raking level and then spreading the end-of-season mulch of compost, around 2.5 cm/1 in.
Summer celery can be followed with spinach, chard, salads and pak choi.