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www.zidao.com Apprentice harmonizer, for sheer fun. Journeywoman writer, for work and pleasure. Starting point was Iowa, current stopping point on this journey is Switzerland, with frequent pauses around the world to watch and listen to the crowd, and occasionally make comments.

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Monday, November 28, 2005

My Swiss garden: Celery stalker

Rosemary's last stand

Winter comes to the garden

Death will come knocking one day and I imagine it will be much like the first day of winter, the one where frost and ice and snow lean on the door and refuse to go away. This is the day when the list of garden chores is crumpled and dropped to the floor: no point in putting in the bulbs now or trying to get down that last bit of mulch or prune the roses. Planning is a thing of the past.

It tends to be a time for reassessment, much like the pre-confessional moment called the examination of conscience I learned as a Catholic child. You tote up your good points and jot down your weak ones and failings, and hope to be forgiven that the second list is invariably longer than the first.

Death gives us practice sessions. By the time I am a master gardener I will be ready to face that final winter, I expect.

The Celery Problem


Meanwhile, there is the Celery Problem to consider. I grew up in Iowa where, to my knowledge, people don't grow celery. Or perhaps now they do, but I never heard of it back when. My mother is the only naturally thin woman in our family of six. She liked to keep celery sticks, neatly sliced and iced, in the refrigerator to encourage the rest of us to keep down our weight. She cut the leaves off the stalks and dred them slowly in a very low oven. I thought all mothers did this and all households smelled of drying celery leaves, but I learned as an adult that this is not so.

My Swiss garden was created from old mountain cow pasture land. The first two years were devoted to lifting stones and winning tugs of war with plants that had roots as long as yodel echoes. We planted potatoes, tomatoes and lettuce. Braver the next year, we tried all the other vegetables and herbs that marry the outdoor garden and the indoor kitchen. Among these was celery, planted the summer of 2004 for the first time. To be honest, I had never seen a growing celery plant, and if the leaves did not look much like the supermarket ones, I was sure the plants would give great flavor.

To blanch or not to blanch

My mother-in-law visited from Kent, in England, and as we surveyed the limp, spindley late summer plants she said that when she was young they blanched their celery. This involved digging trenches and planting the celery low, then heaping dirt up the sides, to keep it sweet and light colored. We then looked up blanching in the Royal Horitucltural Society's Encyclopedia of Gardening and discovered this is no longer done. It kills many of the vitamins and newer varieties do not need it. Over the summer the celery grew, but barely. We cut one or two branches and used them in soup. The crop was not a success.

I vowed to do better by celery in 2005. I bought healthy plants and they were still alive and happy a week later. I watered the vegetable slope generously and it was a good summer for rain. I reread the gardening books and learned that the stalks would be sweeter if I heaped hay around them. I watched and waited.

Celery, I have learned, does not grow quickly. Apparently, it can get bugs, but we had none. I nipped off a leave now and again, a branch or two that tasted fine, although they were very slim. We waited and waited, with great hope. But a mountain garden can grow very slowly, and our corn was ready only at the start of November. The celery would clearly fatten up only in time for the Thanksgiving feast at the end of November.

The day before winter's first cold blast, I despaired of waiting longer and I dug up the six plants. I read the instructions - dig them up, long roots and all, then cut off the roots and you will find they keep well for six weeks in a cool, humid place. My hands were icy and I skipped the cut-the-roots-off detail. I placed the greens in a crate in the laundry room which is cool and damp. They still did not look like the supermarket variety, but they had a certain upright beauty.

The failed gardener

The result, two weeks later, is the sorriest looking bunch of celery stalks I have ever seen. They are bitter, not sweet and the nicely moist plants dried out within a week. This weekend I felt I had to give them a happier ending. The dried leaves were put in a mason jar. I will pull out my mother's old recipes to see what she did with all her leaves, all those years.

Split peas soaking in a Nicholas Mosse bowl

I used one plant in chicken stock, some of which then went into yellow split pea soup, American style, enjoyed by all. I had so much celery that I added more to the unused stock, thinking to make celery soup, without first taking time to find a recipe. Ouf! as we say in French, not a nice taste. So all the weekend leftovers, which consisted of baked apple and pork and hot peppers and sweet chili sauce and so on, went into the broth. Daughter Tara, suffering from flu, refused to eat until she tasted the magic soup which I called "celery and then some" and by the time she had a second bowl the rest of the family was devouring it.

Facts about celery

The summer of 2006 will provide a wonderful crop of Swiss alpine celery, I have promised myself. I am starting early, by turning now to the professionals who tell me these facts about Apium graveolens:

  • Homer probably ate it and he included it in The Odyssey (selinum)
  • The French or Italians were the first to use the word celeri, in a poem - this from Texas A&M University's horticulture department
  • you should plant them seven inches apart / you should plant them 12 inches apart (from two books, confusing advice)
  • you must be sure to heap manure around them when you plant them and they are happiest in "fertile muck", says the University of North Carolina

And, I've noted for further investigation in 2006, the people in North Carolina say that more than 5 days at 40 degrees, presumably fahrenheit, will cause bolting, thereby ruining the crop. But who is bolting, the gardener or the celery?

If the celery does not bolt

A more experienced gardener will probably not assume that the celery is running away from home.

In California, some people have a wealth of celery experience. Steve Bottorff, a garden tools expert, startled me when he explained that celery harvesters spend up to an hour sharpening their new knives and they use every break every day to resharpen them. His photos of the celery harvest in Salinas, California, are enlightening.

Imagine a celery harvest big enough to cut!

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