Friday, March 11, 2011

I’m always on the lookout for volunteers in my garden, whether they’re people, fungi, plants, or any other organisms. The relationship is usually symbiotic. Human volunteers gain some knowledge and experience; I get some help in my ever-growing farmden. Fungal volunteers work with my plants, drinking in some of the sugars and other goodies plants produce. In return, the fungi protect plants agains certain pests and, in the case of mycorrhizal fungi, fungal threads ramifying through the soil act like extensions of plants’ roots so plants can absorb more nutrients.

But what do plant volunteers get out of our arrangement? Plant volunteers usually arrive in droves so only some can stay. Those that stay get to enjoy especially good growing conditions.

Which brings me to celery. For the past few years, I’ve allowed celery in the greenhouse to go to seed each fall. The seeds drop and, within a few months, sprout to furnish plenty of seedlings for early summer celery in the greenhouse and later celery out in the garden. All of which is most welcome because celery seedlings are very slow to germinate and grow. Before celery volunteered around here, I had to sow seeds in early February in seed flats, keep the flats warm and moist until the seeds sprouted, transplant the sprouts into individual cells in another flat, and finally transplant the seedlings, after about 10 weeks of care, out into their permanent homes.

Robust celery seedling have sprouted and are now growing in a greenhouse bed and in the paths near near that bed, all without any help at all from me. I just lifted clumps of them, separated the seedlings carefully to minimize root disturbance, and “plugged” them back into the ground 8 inches apart. Pest problems are minimized because their new home is a greenhouse bed where celery hasn’t grown for the past two years. Seedlings from another clump when into individual cells of the APS Propagator; they’ll go outside into the garden in late April. I pulled a few leaves off all these transplanted seedlings so that they don’t lose too much moisture while waiting for their roots to settle into their new homes and get to work.

A lot of celery volunteers are still standing there in the paths and old celery bed. They are now weeds.

Slow germination and growth, along with the need for a very rich and constantly moist soil, make celery more of a challenge to grow than most other vegetables. Which is one reason that I grow it!

And there’s more. If seedling are exposed to temperatures that are too cold for too long (55° or less for 10 days or more), the plants bolt, sending up seed stalks instead of growing thick, succulent leaves. Older books also talk about blanching celery, that is, piling soil up around the leaf stalks so they turn pale and tender from lack of sunlight. My celery has only rarely bolted, and I never blanche it.

One reason for my success with celery (besides, I hope, a greenish thumb) is the variety I grow: Ventura, available from This variety doesn’t need blanching and is said to grow “beautiful thick crisp stalks with rich, but never harsh, flavor even in less than ideal conditions.” True.

The best celeries I’ve grown were fairly large volunteers that I moved from the greenhouse path into a greenhouse bed last fall. I covered the plants for a few days to increase humidity while the roots were taking hold. All winter, those plants have made the juiciest, longest, tastiest celery stalks ever.

Ventura has always been very good but that was the best.

Clementines are as tasty as the boxes they come in are useful. I can’t bear to throw those boxes out so have a stack of them waiting to be of use.

One box is home to my seed starting supplies: various dibbles and spatulas for lifting small seedlings to replant into larger flats; various sized pieces of plywood for firming soil in seed flats, some with dowels glued to their bottoms to lay out mini-furrows; tape and marking pens for labeling flats; popsicle sticks, also for labeling.

Two other boxes are now being used as seedling flats – for onions and leeks, sown in early February and now well on their way. Each box has 5 mini-furrows in which I sprinkled about 7 fresh onion or leek seeds per inch. The seedlings will grow in those boxes until transplant time, which is a couple of weeks before I’ll be planting out the Ventura celery.


  1. Do you find your mycorrhizal fungi on trees, or in the ground? I've wondered if there's certain types that are more beneficial (and perhaps some that could be detrimental). Thanks!

  2. I am not aware of any mycorrhizal fungi that are detrimental to a plant.

    I do not inoculate my plants. Mycorrhizal fungi are ubiquitous and the best fungus might reflect a particular combination of soil, plant, climate, and other factors. In general, you can rely on Mother Nature to choose the best species as long as you take reasonable care of your soil and plants.