Veg growers should always find space for celery and its close relative, celeriac. It really isn’t as hard to grow as some gardening writers suggest. With self isolation, we’ve time to give the plants a bit more attention. I guarantee you’ll be well rewarded with delicious celery sticks.

Yet this tasty vegetable had most inauspicious beginnings and only centuries of cultivation transformed it into the plant we now know.

A Scottish native, it could and still can, be found on sea walls, beside brackish ditches, on tidal river banks, salt marshes and disturbed ground by marshy water.

People used celery differently to us if it grew in their part of the world. The Egyptians used celery seeds during ceremonial occasions, while these highly flavoured seeds appealed in classical and mediaeval times.

As ever with plants, fashions change. Societies have always had different priorities for how and why they should be used. Until the 19th Century, most Scots were happy to harvest celery seeds but avoided what they called ‘green meat’ like the plague.

I would have done the same: celery was small, bitter and stringy. So how did this change?

Wild celery stems are leafy and bitter, with little of the stalk we now value. When growing celery in the late 17th Century, Scots gardener, John Reid wanted sweet leaves for a relish to suit a contemporary menu.

He planted celery 8cm apart and earthed them as we do potatoes. This excluded light from most of the stem making the foliage much sweeter, noting ‘it shall be blanched for a winter sallad.’

Two hundred years later, S. Arnott from Dumfriesshire also earthed up his celery and went a step further. He ‘blanched by means of paper wrapped round the lengthening leaf stalks’

Luckily, this is totally unnecessary for modern varieties, even if exhibitors continue to do so. I reckon gardeners have more pressing jobs to do.

By the early 20th Century, fashions had changed. Arnott wanted to grow longer, sweeter stalks. This entailed feeding celery much more generously than Reid. Like his Edwardian contemporaries, Arnott ladled on the muck, calling for barrowloads of cow or horse manure and a 5cm dressing of ‘exhausted’ mushroom compost for his widely spaced plants.

This fertility was vital if plants were to expend more energy by growing longer stems. It also helped conserve water, just like modern ‘no dig’ gardening. And Arnott recognised the plants needed copious water.

I find celery and celeriac are my thirstiest plants and must turn on the leaky hose twice a week. However you water, give celery twice as much as everything else.

So water, blanching and fertility have transformed this unlikely plant into one of our favourites.

When should this much improved celery be sown and planted out? Arnott recommends an early January sowing, with warmth and ‘no check of any kind’ guaranteed. He did concede that March or early April was a more usual time.

Celery and celeriac are slow-growing, but because both are tender, I agree with Arnott. Both need the warmth of a propagator, but once pricked out, should stay in the greenhouse till early June.

Plant 30cm apart with 30cm between rows in generously composted ground. The secret for larger stalks is to first let the plants develop a decent clump of foliage. Then every week, remove the outermost leaves. This forces plants to put their energies into producing larger celery stalks and celeriac roots.

If you don’t have time or space for this but want to enjoy the celery flavour, go for leaf celery or Parcel. They are easy to grow and hardy enough to come through the winter. They thrive in semi shade and, once established, resist molluscs.

Plant of the week

Anemone coronaria ‘Jerusalem Pink’ has large, single flowers in a vibrant pink. The silky petals and black boss of stamens give them elegance. Flowering now from an autumn planting or plant the knobbly tubers in April for autumn flowering.

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