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Celery - its commercial cultivation
celery drawing

Ah Sue, a Chinese market gardener, owned a 10-acre garden at York in Western Australia between 1920 and 1941. He specialised in growing cauliflowers, cabbages, lettuces and celery with side crops of tomatoes, melons, onions and peas and a few rows of Chinese vegetables. The garden was known as a winter garden. Celery, in particular, was most suited to York's winter soil, because then it was thick and pliant - a specific requirement for celery cultivation.

Celery seed came from the previous year's crop and was planted into special seed beds. The soil had to be as fine as possible so the seedlings would grow straight, unaffected by stones or clods. When the seedlings were ready they were transplanted into narrow trenches, eight inches apart and three to four inches deep. As the celery grew the trenches were gradually filled in. When the trenches were full, additional soil was used to form long banks around and along the stem of each celery plant. The purpose was to bleach the stalks of the celery. Throughout the growing season, the soil was banked three times.

If there was not enough rain to keep the garden moist, the celery would have to be watered by hand. Doug Sue, Ah Sue's son, recounted that as soon as they were old enough, all seven children in the family helped with the watering. Older children used traditional Chinese watering cans on poles. The cans had a special coarse rose or watering spout suitable for celery. Other plants, such as lettuce, used finer roses for a gentler spray. Younger and smaller children carried kerosene tins of water and used fruit cans on a stick to ladle the water onto the plants. Because there were no wells the garden relied on mains water which was precious and special care was taken so none was wasted.

Weeding was constant. It was a skilled job because seedlings could easily be mistaken for weeds. As the plants grew and were easier to identify, all the children helped with the weeding. Apart from hand weeding, Dutch hoes and hand scarifiers were used.

Fertiliser such as blood and bone was applied when the plants showed signs of maturity. Applying fertiliser was a two-person job: one scooped a hole near the plant with a hoe; the second put a handful of blood and bone into the hole by hand from a tin bucket. Powdered lime mixed with the sweepings of a tobacco factory floor was used as a pesticide. The mixture was bagged and broadcast over the beds. Doug remembered that this was a task that children did.

When the celery was ready to be harvested, the soil was first unbanked; that is the column of soil around each plant was removed with a fork. Plants were cut at the base with a flat spade then placed on large trays. It took three workers to pick celery: one cut the plant, one trimmed and laid it out and one collected it. Those who trimmed also graded it into four categories. Category one consisted of the largest celeries in half-dozen bundles. Categories two and three were packed by the dozen. Category four was regarded as inferior and sold for soup. Trimmings of celery were left on the ground and pig farmers would often collect this for feed.

The graded bunches of celery were then taken to tanks to be washed. When they were clean they were placed on bags ready to be tied. They were bound with twine around the top and the bottom of the bunch. Tying the bunches was an art in itself.

When it rained, Doug washed celery barefooted, dressed only in his bathers with a hat and a hessian cape over his shoulders that was tied at the waist. His hands often cracked when he had been washing celery in icy water. The remedy was cobblers wax, which came in cakes like soap. It was first heated, then pushed into the cracks.

Not all celery was harvested; the best plants were left to go to seed. These had a stake put beside them so they would not be cut, before being transplanted into a separate bed. Winnowing began when the seedpods changed in colour from green to yellow grey, around October. When the pods were dry they were crushed into a shallow bowl and then winnowed using special trays that were three feet in diameter. Days with a light breeze were best for winnowing. Then the contents of the tray were gently tossed so the husk separated from the seeds. Taking the seed off was a highly skilled job. Inexperience could result in losing half the seed. The seeds were then stored in flour bags ready for planting the next year.

Prepared celery was sold either in the wholesale markets in Perth or, in the early days, put on the train for sale on the Goldfields. When Doug was 16 he got a driver's licence so he could drive the truck to the wholesale markets a few times a week. So that farmers' children could drive farming vehicles, including trucks, before the legal age of 17, a special licence was made available for under-age drivers in country areas. The vegetables were loaded on the truck the evening before and, at 1am, Doug left York for Perth so he could get there before 4am, ready for the auction which started at 7am.

In the 1920s, the commercial production of celery was a highly skilled and labour-intensive activity. I wonder what it takes to produce celery from the seed to market 100 years later.

Morag Loh, Doug Sue and Anne Atkinson
Perth and Melbourne

The information for this story is taken from an unpublished interview conducted by Morag Loh with Doug Sue, a Chinese market gardener, in York, Western Australia in March 1992.
Garden planting cycle
  1. October to early January - the 'slack' months. Cultivating, carting manure. Hundreds of tons were collected free from farmers pleased to get rid of it, then stockpiled and used when needed. After the crop was picked, the ground was ploughed straight away then three more times to work the manure in. Manure was carried in baskets on poles, tipped in piles along the beds then spread with forks.

    The beds were levelled using forks or rakes swung with a scraping motion. Skilled workers could get a seed-bed as 'flat as a billiard table'. A level bed was absolutely necessary so seeds could grow evenly, so manure had to be spread evenly.

  2. January to end of February. Seeds planted.

  3. End February. Seedlings transplanted.

  4. February to June. Plants cared for - watered, weeded, banked.

  5. June to end of September. Harvesting and marketing.