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Gardening If it’s February it’s got to be celery

NEW gardeners are always desperate to find something they can sow or plant in February. So are old gardeners, if it comes to that.

We know it’s late winter, but such a long time after Christmas it feels as if it ought to be early spring. Disappointingly, almost every garden crop is best held back until at least next month, but one of the few exceptions, provided you can give it a little heat, is leaf celery.

This invaluable plant goes under a confusing number of names, including celery leaf and Chinese celery, but you’ll find it in seed catalogues listed alongside other varieties of celery, or in the herb section, or both. It’s closely related to the ancestral plant from which the familiar celery with long crunchy stems is descended.

Leaf celery consists mostly of dark green foliage, with only small, thin stems. All of it is edible, with a similar flavour to ordinary celery, but much stronger, so that it’s traditionally used sparingly in salads, and more freely as a flavouring for soups, stews and other cooked dishes. It’s especially good in recipes that contain a lot of cheese.

It’s very hardy, surviving British winters without difficulty, and will continue cropping through the winter if given the protection of a cloche. A vigorous, bushy plant, reaching about 12-18 inches tall when fully grown, it works well as a cut-and-come-again crop. The first flush of leaves should be ready to harvest within a month or so. Use scissors to cut the plant down to about an inch tall, and it will regrow several times.

Sow the seeds thinly on the surface of a tray or pot of seed compost, and cover them just lightly with a thin layer of compost or vermiculite. They’ll need a temperature of around 16°C, so at this time of year that probably means a bright windowsill in a cool room. Germination can be slow, often taking two or three weeks.

When the seedlings are large enough to handle, prick them out into individual small pots, eventually planting them, in late spring, into the ground or into large pots, at about six inches apart. Leaf celery will grow in light shade or in full sun, in rich ground, and will need regular watering to keep the soil or compost constantly moist.

All celeries are biennial, so during its second year it will produce quite pretty white flowers, which are very attractive to hoverflies and other flying insects. The seeds which follow the flowers are themselves edible, or can be harvested for resowing. The plants will die once they’ve produced seed, but if left alone leaf celery will often self-seed, producing new plants for next year.

Leaf celery dries very well, so to save space I usually grow one crop a year, and then dehydrate the leaves for use during winter. Alternatively, you could make two sowings annually, one in spring and another in late summer.

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