How To Plant, Grow, and Care For Celery in Your Garden
Celery is one of the more popular green vegetables you can add to your garden. They are a hardy plant, and make an excellent addition to any salad or spring mix. In this article, organic gardening expert Logan Hailey teaches you the proper steps to plant, grow, and care for celery in your garden this season.
Celery has a reputation for being very challenging to grow. Many gardeners (and even farmers!) shy away from this aromatic biennial because it takes a long time to mature and is sensitive to both heat and cold. But garden-grown celery is fresher, better tasting, and less chemical-laden than its store-bought counterparts.
While many varieties have triple-digit days to maturity and the plant is a bit finicky, the truth is that celery is fairly simple to grow once you get the hang of it. Successfully growing celery is definitely a badge of honor in the gardening world. Plus, you don’t have to worry about celery’s “dirty dozen” reputation for pesticide residues.
Health trends like celery juice, children’s snacks like “ants on a log”, and classic dishes like holiday stuffing aren’t going away any time soon. Celery is a nutritious, hydrating, and delicious addition to any garden. It also can be used as a storage crop through the fall and early winter.
If you’ve been wanting to test out your horticultural skills with this herby vegetable, you’re in the right place. After growing celery on commercial organic farms in a wide range of climates, I am proud to say that any savvy gardener can conquer this crisp umbel-family vegetable. Let’s demystify growing celery and dig into how you can successfully cultivate it in your garden with minimal effort.
Celery Plant Overview
Plant Type Bienniel, Grown as Annual
Species Apium graveolens
Hardiness Zone USDA 6-10
Maintenance Moderate to High
Plant Height 12 inches
Fertility Needs Moderate to High
Temperature 55-86 degrees
Container Compact Varieties in Containers
Soil Type Fertile, Well-draining
Spacing 6-10 inches
Watering Needs High, 1 inch per Week
Sun Exposure Full Sun
Days to Maturity 80-120 days
Diseases Blight, Circospora Leaf Spot
History and Cultivation
Celery has an intriguing history as both food and medicine. Through many centuries of evolution, this aromatic vegetable has made its way into gardens and cuisines around the world.
What is Celery?
Celery is a biennial vegetable that is most often grown as an annual. This means that it takes two years to complete its life cycle and go to seed, however, most of us gardeners harvest it in a single season of growth.
Celery has a long fibrous stalk that is juicy and crunchy and can be eaten raw or cooked. While the stalk is most coveted amongst chefs, the aromatic leaves and even starchy roots are also edible.
Celery is a member of the Apiaceae or umbel family, which also includes carrot, parsley, cilantro, parsnip, dill, fennel, and lovage. The family is also called Umbelliferae. As you can tell, this aromatic plant family includes lots of popular herbs and veggies with hollow stems and flat-topped clusters of flowers.
While many Apiaceae crops are used as herbs, celery is a vegetable most commonly cultivated for its crisp, hydrating stalk. Certain varieties of celery called celeriac (or celery root) have also been cultivated for large bulbous starchy roots. Growing celeriac roots is a very similar process to growing celery.
Where Does Celery Originate?
Apium graveolens is a wild marshland plant native to Europe, the Mediterranean, parts of Asia, and the Himalayas. It is believed to be the same plant as selinon, which was mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey around 850 B.C.
The first known records of celery use come from the Mediterranean, where early civilizations used wild celery ancestors as medicinal remedies for soothing nerves, promoting sleep, liver detoxification, anti-inflammatory actions, and support for the urinary tract. The ancestors of modern celery still grow wild in wet areas throughout Europe.
History of Celery Cultivation
The first food uses of celery date back to the 1600s in France. The term “celery” is believed to have come from the French word celeri. Early varieties were quite pungent and bitter, so the French primarily used celery as a flavoring herb. By the mid 17th century, plant breeders had improved the wild-type into a more neutral flavor with crisp stalks and pleasantly fragrant leaves.
French and Italian cuisines had begun integrating celery in salads and dressings. They discovered that growing celery in mild seasons of late summer and fall made the plant more palatable. Mid-18th century Swedish chefs spread celery around as a winter luxury for storage in cellars and use in stews.
Europeans and Americans soon caught on and the green stalks of celery were eventually bred to be savory and nearly sweet without any of the remaining pungent flavors of wild varieties. We’ll explore the best-tasting varieties as well as the easiest-to-grow varieties below.
Celery is most commonly propagated by seed and is widely available in nurseries. For a fun indoor project with children, you can also propagate celery from the base of stalks purchased at the store. Either way, opt for certified organic whenever possible because conventional celery often has high amounts of pesticide residues.
How to Seed Celery
If you want to grow celery from seed, you’ll need to start early. Otherwise, I’d recommend purchasing high-quality seedlings from a nursery or garden store when you are ready to plant. The seeds are very tiny and can be tricky to plant, so transplanting is most recommended for beginners. However, seeding yourself tends to be cheaper and offers more varietal selection.
Celery should be seeded in late spring in most climates. Determine your estimated last frost date and then count back 10-12 weeks to determine the best sowing date. The seeds of certain varieties can be finicky when germinating, so it’s best to invest in quality seeds and overplant to account for any losses.
You may also prefer pelleted seeds for ease of sowing. Because celery seeds are so tiny, organic-approved clay pelleting makes it easier to handle and singulate the seeds.
Prepare open flats or plug trays with a quality organic seed starting mix. Sow 4-6 celery seeds per inch or 2-3 per plug. They should be planted about ⅛” deep because the seeds require light to germinate. If you cover them with too much soil, they will have trouble coming up.
The soil should be kept consistently moist for 2-3 weeks. During this period the ideal temperature is between 70-75°F, but after germination, the seedlings prefer temps between 60 and 70°F.
Seedlings need several weeks to grow their first leaves. When they have two sets of true leaves, you can up-pot the seedlings to 2” plug trays (if you started in larger size cells this is not necessary). Keep seedlings protected, with consistent moisture, temperatures, and light, until transplanting.
How to Grow Celery From Base
Another unique way to propagate celery is from the base of a celery stalk you purchased from a grocery store or farmer’s market. This is a super easy method that gets fast results and is great for kids. This is considered vegetative propagation because you are essentially rooting and re-growing the plant from an existing stalk.
Cut your celery about 2” from the base and use the stalks for cooking or recipes. Keep the base in one whole piece and place it in a shallow bowl of 1” of water or a container of potting soil. Place it in a bright area out of direct sunlight.
It will begin sprouting new leaves in a couple of days. Change the water or keep moist every couple of days and be sure that the celery doesn’t dry out. You can transplant from the shallow dish to a potting mix and grow a larger celery plant near a bright south-facing window.
Keep in mind that this isn’t quite the same as growing celery in your garden and probably won’t yield super high-quality celery stalks. It tends to grow more leaves, which can be used like cilantro in dishes.
Planting celery is very straightforward and similar to any other vegetable crop. The only major difference is that celery seedlings should not be hardened off by lowering temperatures. They are very sensitive and should only have reduced water for 7-10 days before transplanting.
When to Plant Celery
Celery seedlings are ready to be planted outdoors when the weather has thoroughly settled and nights are above 50°F (often late May or mid-June in zones 6-8). It is very important that young plants are not exposed to temperatures below 55°F as they are prone to bolting (going to seed prematurely).
This is the most common mistake beginner celery gardeners make. Even tomatoes can be more cold-hardy than this crop, so be sure to keep your seedlings safe until the weather has warmed.
In hot climates, celery is best grown in the cool weather of fall, winter, or spring. Celery is not heat-tolerant and will have poor performance in regular temperatures over 85°F.
Trenching vs. Self-Blanching vs. Collars
The best celery stalks have nice pale green or white bottoms that are crisp and tender. This result requires blanching. You can blanch celery by planting it in trenches, choosing self-blanching varieties, or putting little collars around the base of your celery plants.
Trenching or mounding is my preferred way to plant celery. You create a trench and then plant the celery inside. As it grows, you slowly mound the soil up against the steps to keep them pale, tender, and protected from the sun. Trenching can only be problematic in the event of heavy rainfalls that may backflow the soil and bury your plants. You also don’t want to mound too quickly or the growing tip could be buried.
Start mounding up trenching varieties when they are about a foot tall. Mound up the soil around 3” each time you hill them up.
Self-blanching cultivars include ‘Self-Blanching Golden’ and ‘Pascal the Golden’. These types naturally have lighter green-sensitive stalks that are mild-flavored and do not need blanching. These varieties are often easiest for beginners and require fewer steps.
Collar blanching means using cardboard or plant collars placed around the base of the celery stalks as they grow. This keeps them protected from the sun and produces those whiteish to pale green bases we are used to seeing in grocery stores.
How to Transplant Celery
Decide if you want to use the trenching and mounding method before planting. If so, make the trench about 4-6” deep. Celery starts should be fully rooted in their plugs and have several sets of vibrant leaves before planting. Grasp the plant at the base and gently wiggle it out of the container.
Use a garden trowel or hori hori planting knife to make a hole in the soil about the same size as the plug. Place the plant in the soil and backfill, avoiding any pressing or tamping down. The soil surface should remain in line with the original seedling base (don’t bury the growing tip).
Thoroughly water in celery seedlings (diluted kelp helps with transplant shock) and keep consistently moist (never soggy). Celery cannot tolerate drought and needs regular watering, especially when young. I recommend covering newly transplanted celery with row cover for added protection from temperature fluctuations.
Celery plants should be planted 6-10” apart in rows 12-24” apart. Some varieties are more compact than others, so check the recommended spacing on your seed packet.
How to Grow Celery
In spite of its common association with wintery stews, celery is a moderate-weather crop that dislikes both heat and cold. It typically needs to be seeded indoors, transplanted in the spring after the risk of frost has passed, and harvested in late summer or early fall. It can be stored for 1-2 months in a root cellar or refrigerator for its infamous use in holiday dishes.
Celery needs 6-8 hours of full direct sunlight in the garden. Avoid planting in areas that get afternoon shade or the shadows of nearby structures. Having the proper amount of light is critical for just about any plant, but it’s very important to this particular vegetable.
Celery is very intolerant of drought. It is a thirsty plant that requires consistent irrigation. The best way to irrigate celery is with drip lines or soaker hoses. Soil needs to be consistently moist, with about 1 inch of irrigation or rainfall per week, especially during hot weather.
If you let celery plants dry out at any time during the season, your yields or flavor may suffer. The stalks will be dry and small. Along with temperature, irrigation can be the hardest part of growing celery. It is just a thirsty, needy plant!
Celery and its cousin celeriac prefer moist, well-drained soil that is fertile and high in organic matter. It’s best to amend heavily with quality organic compost, decomposed manure, and/or leaf mould before planting. Soil should have a pH between 6.0 and 7.0 and have plenty of water holding capacity so the celery never dries out.
Climate and Temperature
This is where celery is very particular. Temperatures need to be between 55° and 80°, or preferably the milder 60 to 70°F range. Of course, no climate is going to be perfect for celery, therefore it is important to buffer any temperature extremes with the use of row cover (when too cold) or shade cloth (when too hot).
Celery can be grown in almost any growing zone in the U.S. if you choose the proper variety (quick maturing, cold-tolerant, or heat-tolerant) combined with adequate preparation. Cold temperatures below 50°F tend to cause bolting, whereas hot temperatures make celery bitter and less palatable. You can combat the latter with row cover or a greenhouse.
To avoid bitterness, use the trenching method to blanch your celery and keep the lower stalks tender and pleasant.
Soil health is very important for celery, as it is a heavy feeding crop. I prefer to add a 2-4” thick of compost on top of the soil each season before planting. I also use a quality all-purpose organic fertilizer such as Down to Earth. Celery loves liquid fish fertilizer as well and can benefit from fertigation feedings every couple of weeks.
To blanch celery stems, reference the planting section above and decide which method you prefer. I believe that the trenching or mounding method is the easiest and most natural. But you can choose self-blanching varieties or the collar method as well.
For mounding, either plant in a trench or mound up as you go. Don’t begin blanching the stems until they are at least 1 foot tall. Then, you can use your hands or a hoe to scoop soil up toward the base of the plant about 2-3” at a time. Avoid scuffing or harming the stalks in the process. Celery can be hilled every couple of weeks as long as the growing tip or leaves are never buried.
Unlike the full bundled stalks you see in the store, the best way to harvest celery is stem by stem as you need it. This will maximize your harvest throughout the summer and fall. You will wind up with far higher yields than if you harvested whole heads at once.
Once a plant has about 10 stalks, simply pull back the outermost stems from the base or use a knife to cut off as many stems as you need, just like you would harvest rainbow chard. This will encourage prolific growth and help maintain a longer harvest window for your celery.
I typically wait until early-to-mid-fall when the weather starts cooling to harvest full celery stalks. The plant can be cut at the base of the roots and immediately dunked in cold water to help preserve it.
Celery can be stored in a glass of water on the counter, in the crisper drawer of your fridge, or in ventilated bags for several weeks. It also makes a great powder when dehydrated, ground, and stored in an airtight container.
Harvesting celery that is exposed to too much heat or water stress can cause a woody, bitter texture. On the other hand, celery that has been exposed to cold temperatures may be rubbery, less flavorful, or prone to bolting. Try to get the best harvest window possible by marking planting dates on your calendar and counting forward based on the variety’s days to maturity.
What is Celery Allergy?
Please be aware that some people are very sensitive to celery leaves when harvesting. The plant can cause contact dermatitis in a small number of individuals, which creates an eczema-like rash and other allergic reactions. If you are allergic to parsley, mugwort, or birch pollen, you may also have an allergy to celery. Wear gloves when harvesting or avoid touching the plant.
Because of its finicky reputation amongst farmers and gardeners, plant breeders have worked hard to develop the best cultivars possible for different conditions. Whether you live in a cooler climate with a short growing season or a hot, dry climate, there is a variety of celery for you. There are even pinkish-purplish varieties that make for uniquely beautiful dishes.
Best Overall: ‘Tango’
With widespread adaptability to heat or moisture stress, ‘Tango’ is the most popular celery variety amongst organic farmers and gardeners. It is willing to perform under less-than-ideal conditions and matures in just 80 days. It has a delicious slightly sweet flavor and long, tender stalks that aren’t as fibrous as other varieties.
Best for Short, Cold Seasons: ‘Giant Red’
This cold-hardy heirloom is very popular in England for its reddish-purple stalks and robust flavor. It adds a nice color and spice to cooked dishes. This is one of the largest varieties of celery that can grow up to 2 feet tall! It requires plenty of space in the garden and 85 days to mature.
Best for Cold Nights: ‘Pascal the Golden’
Sometimes called ‘Winter King’, this French heirloom was introduced to America in 1913. It has greenish-yellow stalks that are tender and grow up to 20 inches tall. It does not require blanching and can withstand colder temperatures than other varieties. Pascal the Golden takes 115 days to mature and yields mild-flavored stalks with “stingless” leaves that won’t irritate the skin.
Best for Hot Weather: ‘Monterey’
Very popular amongst southern gardeners, ‘Monterey’ can handle a bit more heat and is commercially grown in Europe. It takes just 80 days to mature and has flavorful dark-green stalks that grow about 1 foot tall. This variety is also an early-maturing hybrid that is resistant to bolting and perfect for late summer plantings and fall or winter maturing in hot climates.
Best for Small Gardens: ‘Kelvin’
This F1 hybrid is also a favorite amongst growers in the south. As one of the most resilient celery varieties, ‘Kelvin’ will still perform under heat stress or with slightly less water. The stems are juicy, thick, and succulent with a long hold-time in the garden. The leaves are deep green and flavorful. ‘Kelvin’ has a uniform, upright growth habit that is great for smaller gardens that need closer spacing (6-8” between plants).
Best Celeriac: ‘Mars’
Celery root is a very underappreciated vegetable because of its strange alien-like looks and unknown reputation amongst the American public. However, its rich wholesome flavor and potato-like texture are perfect for nurturing roasts and soups all winter long.
‘Mars’ has large uniform bulbs and big, healthy plants that keep an upright habit in the garden. The roots have firm flesh with a slight celery or mushroom flavor. Celery root can be grown just like celery. It stores for 6-8 months in a root cellar or refrigerator.
Best Unique Variety: ‘Chinese Pink Celery’
With vibrant fuschia to purple stems and light, crunchy texture, ‘Chinese Pink’ is always a showstopper garden crop. It is very popular in Beijing, where you’ll find the bright pink stalks in high-end restaurants. This variety is very beginner-friendly and said to be much easier to grow than European types.
This variety has a slightly sweet parsley-like flavor and a light, crisp texture. Chinese pink celery is bubblegum pink throughout its lifecycle and remains pink when cooked. It is also much more cold-hardy than other varieties. Erratic bolting is an issue, so sow multiple successions for a more reliable harvest. 100 days to maturity.
Pests and Diseases
Celery’s redeeming quality for all its finicky growth requirements is that it is mostly pest and disease-free. A few pathogens attack the plant when it is stressed, so growing healthy plants in the right season and taking preventative measures is your best bet for avoiding plant issues.
Waterlogged, poorly draining soils are very bad for vegetables, specifically celery. The rapid death of seedlings just before or after emergence is often caused by an oomycete (fungus-related) pathogen called Pythium.
The seedlings often rot or girdle right at the soil line. Stagnant, soggy conditions in cool, wet soil are the most common culprit. Use disease-resistant varieties and a high-quality well-drained potting mix (amended with extra perlite or vermiculite if needed) to prevent damping-off.
These tiny annoying soft-bodied insects are most often found on the underside of celery leaves or the inner stalks. They are usually whitish-yellow, but can also be pink, red, or black. They secrete a sticky substance that can also cause mold growth on the plants.
To get rid of aphids, use insecticidal soap, oil, or neem application directly on the affected area. Plants tolerate a low to medium infestation, so harsh control methods often aren’t necessary. A heavy spray of water will also knock aphids off the leaves, just be sure that celery plants can thoroughly dry out afterward to avoid fungal issues.
Also called Cercospora Leaf Spot, Early Blight is a frustrating disease of celery, parsley, and relatives. It favors warm temperatures and wet leaves, which is why overhead irrigation is not recommended. The disease is identified by yellow flecks on leaf surfaces that eventually become large gray-brown spots with no border or halo. The spots soon turn papery and may kill whole leaves and plants.
The fungus overwinters in soil, therefore crop rotation and pathogen-free seed are essential. Avoid overcrowding plants and consider using diluted neem applications as a preventative measure.
Bacterial Blight and Brown Stem
If you notice small spots on the leaves that look water-soaked and lined in a pale green or brown halo, you may be dealing with Pseudomonas cichorii, or Bacterial Blight. This pathogen will eventually create brown discoloration and long brown streaks along the plant, which may dry out and become a reddish-rust color.
The bacteria is most severe in hot temperatures above 86°F and spreads by splashing or wind between plants. There are few control options, so prevention is key. Maintain adequate spacing and avoid overhead irrigation. Try to only plant in the buffer season to avoid hot weather.
Celery is consumed globally as a vegetable and an herb. The stalk, leaves, and roots are all edible and used in a variety of cuisines. Some temperate regions grow celery specifically for the seeds, which are a popular spice in seasoning blends. Celery seeds are also particularly well-known for gastrointestinal relief and other uses in herbalism.
Common celery recipes include Thanksgiving stuffing, winter stews, soup stocks, peanut-butter snacks, dipping in hummus, Chinese fried rice, and celery juice.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does it take to grow your own celery?
Most celery cultivars take 80 to 120 days to mature. Planting seeds indoors 10-12 weeks before the last frost date is recommended in regions with a short growing season.
Does celery grow back after cutting?
Celery usually regenerates from the base and will continue growing after harvest. To maximize the harvest window, it is recommended that you harvest outer stalks as needed rather than cutting the whole plant. This will promote more prolific grow-back and higher yields.
What is the best way to grow celery?
Celery is best grown in the mildest weather season of your region when it is not too hot or cold. Celery seeds can be planted in March and planted into the garden in mid-May or early June in areas where summers aren’t too hot. Celery is best grown at a 6-8” spacing between plants, with plenty of water and a bi-weekly fertilizing schedule.
Does celery need full sun?
Celery requires 6-8 hours of direct sunlight in the garden. Too much shade can cause plant stress or less vigor.
Does celery grow back every year?
Celery is a biennial crop most commonly grown as an annual. Some celeries, like ‘Chinese Pink’ have a perennial habit in many climates. They will grow back the following year if the roots are left undisturbed. European varieties of celery tend to die back at the first frost and will need to be replanted the following year.
If you’ve been wanting to incorporate more antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and alkalizing vegetables into your diet, growing celery in your garden is a cheap and safe way to enjoy celery. Due to heavy pesticide use on commercial celery farms, I always prefer to grow my own organic garden-fresh celery for delicious juices and recipes all autumn long.
Celery may be a finicky plant to grow, but any gardener can quickly get the hang of cultivating it with a little attention to detail and experimentation.