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Rhubarb growing

Rhubarb growing – you can see the long stem, the longest petiole of all plants!

Rhubarb crown

Rhubarb crown – made from a rhizome, the stems, and the roots.

Rhubarb growing – let them get to a decent size and never take them all!

Rhubarb is one of those crops we all should grow if you like the sharp fruit cooked in syrup. I have to say that for a long time I didn’t like it – it was something about the stringiness of the final product that stopped me eating it as a child – a phobia that took many years to overcome.

Growing rhubarb is one of those miracles, because it starts with a cow; well, rather what a cow produces more than anything else – poo. Rhubarb requires a lot of manure for many reasons.

 

Firstly, manure-enriched soil is moisture retaining because of the nature of the partly digested grass acting as a sponge.

 

 

Secondly, the manure is rich in minerals, and if a plant produces an intense flavour or a bright colour, you can be sure it needs a lot of nutrients. Rhubarb produces both an intense flavour and a bright colour, so you will not be surprised to find it is a hungry plant.

 

 

ALL THE FAMILY

 

The buckwheat family live along rivers. The word ‘rhubarb’ means the Rhea (the scientific name for the genus is Rheum) from the barbarian river – otherwise known as the Volga. Russian rhubarb grew along this river, and Chinese rhubarb grew along the Chinese rivers.

 

 

In medieval times, rhubarb was very expensive, until we started growing it at home – and very popular it has been too.

 

 

SOIL

 

Rhubarb grows by sending out leaves from a rhizome, and this can be easily divided to make new plants. It will grow in any soil so long as it is free draining. You should feed the soil each spring by the addition of plenty of organic manure – well-rotted of course.

 

 

CROWNS

 

The most common way of obtaining rhubarb – unless you have a good mate nearby who is willing to give you a crown in the winter (see later) – is to buy crowns. These look a little like a big red bud on some dead-looking roots. Simply bury the whole thing in the soil, roots downward, and cover so that the bud of the crown is a couple of inches below the soil level. Give it a good drink of water and leave. This can be done in winter if you like – the plant at this stage is quite hardy.

 

 

One is usually given crowns by other growers; you have to divide the rhizome every few years, which usually means you have to give one away, unless you want to have more plants yourself.

 

 

Completely bury the crowns, roots downward, so the top of the plant is around 5cm under the soil. Mark this place, until in the late spring the new plant bursts forth.

 

 

CARE

 

Rhubarb is an easy plant to look after, so long as it never dries out. As you can imagine, a plant with such big leaves needs a lot of water, but it shouldn’t ever be allowed to stand in water – the rhizome rots in wet conditions. In the summer, give it a couple of feeds of dilute organic fertiliser. But its main feed is in the spring, with a huge dollop of manure – at least two buckets full.

 

 

In August, give the plant a mulch of a bucketful of compost, which will provide more nutrients as well as water retention in the driest part of the year.

 

 

COLLECTING

 

From early April, cut or pull off the stems as they come to a decent size. They are easy to pull out, and the bit you eat is the petiole, or leaf stalk – not the leaf itself. The leaves are rich in oxalic acid, which can give you a nasty tummy upset, and it also reduces your ability to metabolise certain vitamins.

 

 

By June, the plant is at the height of its production, and before the end of the month stop cutting. In July, the oxalic acid will be working itself up the petioles and you need to stop collecting them. During the spring, don’t take all the stems – the plant needs to make food for itself, and it can only do this by photosynthesis.

 

 

It takes a good season’s growth before the plant is ready for harvesting. Start the plants off in the spring and then start to harvest in the early summer of the following year. Your plant will be productive for around a decade if you continue to feed and keep it weed free.

 

 

FORCING

 

In Yorkshire there is a thing called the ‘Wakefield Triangle’. It isn’t a strange area where Lancastrians suddenly disappear, but it is the best place on earth to get early, forced rhubarb. They are grown in large sheds and are collected by candlelight. It is said to be the sweetest rhubarb you can get.

 

 

That said, you can do it yourself by placing a ceramic pot over the growing plant – from the first time they appear until you are ready to harvest, only peek under the pot at night to see how they are doing.

 

RHUBARB VARIETIES

 

 

The old standards are still good. Genetically speaking, this is a sturdy plant, it doesn’t hybridise that much and is good for many years once you have it established.

 

‘Ace of Hearts’

 

A smaller plant with sweet thin stems, which just keeps on coming.

 

 

‘Prince Albert’

 

An early variety, with good flavour.

 

 

‘Victoria’

 

She is a little late, and a bit too tart for my liking.

 

 

‘Timperley Early’

 

Developed just down the road from me, ‘Timperley Early’ is a good all-rounder. This is still one of the best around.

 

 

‘Mammoth Red’

 

This is a big one that I’ve never needed to grow – you only chop the stems up and stew them after all!

KITCHEN NEWBIE BOOKSHOP

COOKING WITH RHUBARB

Why not try these delicious rhubarb recipes?

Rhubarb fool (with strawberries)

View Recipe