• By Janine Pineo •
There’s probably only one vegetable in my garden that found the weather of the past few weeks acceptable.
It’s the same one that I will go out of my way to track down when planting time arrives.
I even have been known to panic when I can’t find it anywhere, although its availability as a seedling in the past few years has been more evident at local greenhouses, which means less panic for me.
This summer, the garden spot boasts the triumvirate of the Apium graveolens family: celery, celeriac and cutting celery.
I love my celery.
Take your tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and squash. Those plants grow, blossom and set fruit. Same old, same old.
Celery is different.
There are leaves and stalks and strings and hearts.
Unless it is celeriac, which has that giant root going for it. And then there’s the cutting variety, looking more like its kissing cousin, flat-leaf parsley, than it does celery.
When I started searching online for dirt on celery, I was surprised to read it is considered a hard plant to grow.
Obviously, one can’t believe everything one reads.
Sure, celery requires adequate water over the course of the summer. Extended dry periods will stress the plant and make the stalks turn hollow and bitter. It definitely isn’t the best crop to hang your hopes on for, say, a desert climate.
But with a little care, folks around here should be able to grow decent celery.
The only trick I have is to use black plastic mulch to help retain any extra moisture around the plants. A dollop of organic fertilizer goes in when I plant each seedling. Other than that, no extra effort or scary lengths seem necessary unless we are in a drought.
That hasn’t been the case for a while now.
Over the course of the summer, once the plants get settled and show a solid growth spurt, I start harvesting some of the outer stalks whenever we need celery, leaving the heart of the plant intact.
Doing that only seems to spur the growth. When the growing season wanes, we harvest the entire plant, discarding any of the stalks that are hollow, chopping up the rest and freezing bags of it for use in any cooked dishes.
Celeriac, or celery root, is a more recent addition to my garden.
I got my first taste of celery root many years ago at an inn on the coast. It was an incredibly fancy dinner, featuring Maine scallops and an exquisite puree of celery root that came from a nearby farm.
I never forgot it.
A couple of years ago, I found some seedlings at Everlasting Farm in Bangor and had decent luck growing a half-dozen plants. This year, I doubled the seedlings because I discovered last year I could freeze any leftovers of my cooked celeriac and enjoy a dish of it whenever I wanted.
Celeriac is markedly similar to celery as it grows, although the stalks don’t form as tight a bunch as celery plants do. I did discover online that you can harvest celeriac stalks, too, but I would be concerned that it might affect the growth of the root, which is the object of growing celeriac in the first place.
The growing season is lengthy: 200 days according to the tag on the seedlings, which is why I buy seedlings.
Cutting celery, on the other hand, is all about the leaves. It’s also called soup celery, leaf celery or smallage.
This plant is popular in Europe and seems to be a bit of a novelty stateside. The advantage to cutting celery is that it gives celery flavor without adding stalks to a recipe. That seems like a weird statement, but sometimes you may not want to have chopped-up celery stalks in a particular recipe just to get the flavor.
Plus, cutting celery can be harvested much earlier in the season than stalk celery.
There is one thing about celery that still puzzles me.
Mine never looks like the bunches you find at the grocery store, all perfectly formed and straight. My celery usually ends up looking loose and free, with just the heart of the bunch tight and upright. This year, some of the plants may even look a bit flat since my dog Kai, who is finding gardening quite a curiosity, decided to sit on a few plants this past week while I was planting some seeds in between downpours.
Maybe I’ll just tell folks it’s a new creeping celery variety.
First published in the Bangor Daily News in June 2009.