Kitchen Garden

Why Not More Celery?

Freshly Picked Celery
Freshly Picked Celery

Why don’t more Iowans grow celery?

More specifically, why don’t more Community Supported Agriculture projects produce it for members and local food farmers for restaurants and markets?

I’ve been asking this question of growers and the reaction has been surprise at my results and maybe an assertion they will try it. There is substantial demand for the aromatic vegetable in kitchens and restaurants yet the perception is celery doesn’t grow well in Iowa, so farmers mostly don’t.

Celery from my garden tastes better than regular or organic available at the grocery store. In addition, celery is in the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen fruits and vegetables for use of pesticides, ranking #5. Why buy California celery when we can produce our own at least part of the year? Having the best possible flavor is important to everything cooked with celery.

Celery takes about 120 days and requires adequate water, more than most vegetables. That means seeding trays planted in late February to produce the crop being harvested this weekend. I use Conquistador OG seeds from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine. (OG stands for organic). It took me a couple of years to get successfully from seedlings to the ground to a crop as I experimented with growing. This year’s crop has been the best ever.

I attribute success to using 4-inch drainage tile cut into 8-inch lengths to protect and support young seedlings. I mulch with grass clippings and weed regularly. Each morning I make sure a substantial dose of water is applied. Larger scale farmers shun this extra work, focusing more on crops that can be mechanized (like potatoes) or are popular among customers (like cabbage, tomatoes and peppers). The flavor of local celery, and growing it pesticide-free, make the extra work worth it.

Every head of celery will be used fresh this year. There were only a dozen from the garden in this experimental year and I shared some with library workers in town. Next year I plan to double production and if there is more than can be used fresh, preserve part of it.

In June at the Global Foods Market in Kirkwood, Missouri, I bought a jar of celery salad in a glass jar. The preparation uses celery, apple juice, walnut extract and vinegar and is an example of a shelf-stable item for winter consumption. For the time being, I expect to use everything fresh in soups, stir fry and Louisiana-style beans and rice.

If the local foods movement doesn’t wake up to celery, there is a market for sales to restaurants to pursue. If they don’t exploit it, I will.