Rhubarb rhubarbPosted By: rocket veg Category: Plant Care, Seasonal Tips
Judging by the new shoots which have appeared in the last few days, the recent spell of mild, wet weather has tricked the rhubarb on my allotment into thinking that spring is just around the corner. During the winter months, the ‘crown’ – lurking just under the surface of the soil – should be busy taking in nutrients and developing shoots which first appear as a tight cluster of pale pink buds. Depending on the variety and given a bit of late winter sunshine, the buds will quickly grow into tall stems with impressive reddish-green leaves. Rhubarb crumble and pies are quintessentially British puddings, best made when the stems are young and are still tender and sweet, although if you love eating rhubarb, it is possible to continue picking stems until late June.
Rhubarb can be grown from seed, but the simplest method is to plant a small crown: ask about and you’ll be sure to find someone on your allotment site who will divide a strong crown during the winter months when the plant is dormant and give you a chunk, which must be taken from the outside edge of the donor crown. Before planting, dig in a good quantity of well-rotted manure and set the crown into the ground with its tip just visible. If it is to flourish, rhubarb needs a sunny, well-drained spot. It’s a tough plant, but hates sitting in water-logged soil when it may succumb to crown rot, a fungal infection, most likely to be brought on by poor drainage. The tip of the crown also needs to be exposed to frost which will break its dormancy.
Rhubarb is generally a tough beast but will appreciate being kept free from weeds and will reward you with a good crop if given a top dressing of rich, organic matter around the crown. Remove any remaining leaves in autumn and ensure that the crown is clear of debris which will encourage rot.
In order to get a really early crop of the sweetest, tenderest rhubarb, you can force the plant to produce stems by covering the crown with an upturned bucket to exclude the light and trick the crown into putting on early growth. Victorian kitchen gardeners perfected the art of forcing and produced tall, shapely terracotta pots for the purpose, a hole at the top covered with a lid to enable growth to be checked and through which the ripe stems could be pulled as soon as they reached the top. Modern forcing jars are widely available (a great Christmas present!), although an old chimney pot works just as well and will add a touch of splendour to your veg patch.
Harvesting the wonderful stems
Young stems are fragile, especially those which have been forced, so to keep them in one piece, grip the stem low down and pull upwards with firm pressure to free the stem from the crown. Avoid cutting stems as the stubby end left behind will be exposed to infection and pests. It is important not to harvest rhubarb in the year after it was planted in order to allow the crown to build up strength and the same applies when a crown has been forced.
‘Timperley Early’: as the name suggests, is one of the earliest varieties, producing lots of strong stems in early spring. Good for forcing.
‘Champagne’: another a very early variety which is perfect for forcing and has a good flavour.
‘Victoria’: produces thick, deep red stems, tinged with green, for later pulling.