Rhubarb is a plant that many of us will have a fond childhood memory of, if like me you spent many an afternoon with stalks of rhubarb and a bag of Tate & Lyle Sugar.
Dip Bite….Dip Bite….repeat, ah bliss, and if I mind right it wasn’t even our own, we use to ‘borrow’ it from a neighbours back garden, we did have our own, mum had one precious crown but this wasn’t enough to satisfy the demand so we had to go foraging for more.
If you have a Rhubarb crown in your garden you’ll be close to getting your first harvest, the anticipation of crumbles etc is building, but of course you could be enjoying a harvest already if you did a bit of ‘forcing’, although technical sounding it’s as easy as placing a big drum over the top of the plants.
by GARETH AUSTIN
Blocking out the light completely like this makes the stems go perfectly straight, be tender and bright red…all for the want of a big bucket!
Rhubarb have a great demand for water, those big leaves just love water, so they’re ideal for our gardens, however they dislike sitting in pools of water in the winter months, so we grow them along raised beds to get the crowns above the winter water table.
What Rhubarb love is manure, those big leaves needs lots of fertility to get them to grow nice long stems, and if you’re wanting to harvest them you have to feed them up as not to exhaust them. The best feed you can give Rhubarb is a big mulch of Farmyard Manure in early spring, this good thick mulch will not only feed but also improve the soil as to improve its water holding capacity and its texture.
The big deep roots of Rhubarb allow the plant to reach fertility deep into the soil, so they can utilise nutrients that are outwith the reach of other garden plants, but good initial cultivation is important to get the roots down into the soil, so don’t scrimp with the spade at the start!
Rhubarb need cold conditions to trigger spring growth, below 5C, so a generally tip is to dig up your crowns in late winter and leave them sitting on the surface of the soil for a few weeks to expose them to good cold weather, then just replant.
When you plant a new Rhubarb plant it’s important that you don’t crop it at all in the first growing season, as you want the plant to utilise those big leaves to produce energy to create a bulky crown, so that in future you can enjoy better harvests. When you do start to harvest its best to ‘pull’ rather than cut stems, pulling ensures that no end bits are left behind which will just rot away and damage the crown and only harvest around 50% of the available stems at any time, you need to leave some stems behind so that the plant can still perform all its normal functions such as Photosynthesizing etc .
There are very few pests that bother with Rhubarb, the high oxalic acid content of the leaves renders the plant unpalatable for the vast majority of insects, slugs will nibble but rarely come back for seconds! Indeed the leaves, when steeped in water for a few days, make a wonderful slug repellent liquid for the garden.
Variety wise the most commonly found is ‘Timperley Early’, this is the mainstay of the rhubarb market, named after a collection of market gardens outside of Manchester. Timperley early is a good early variety, I also grow Stockbridge Arrow and The Sutton varieties to extend the cropping time, 2 of each plant, planted at 4’ spacings, in rows 3’ apart.
After a period of time, which can range from 5-12 years they stems of Rhubarb can get start to get thin and spindly, this is the time when you need to dig ‘em up, chop them into knuckle sized portions with the spade and then replant. This dividing work will reinvigorate your plants and you’ll be back into good thick stems for harvest in 12-18 months time. If you start to get flowering stems coming on your plants, just cut these off, its nothing to worry about!.
The gardens centres around the area are full of wonderful Rhubarb plants, ideal for planting now. You can sow Rhubarb from seed, but it will add another 12 months onto your wait for a harvest!