Homeschool Garden Club - Rhubarb
There are few crops that you can grow which take such little effort to succeed as Rhubarb. It is my personal favourite. Over the winter, I look forward to the rhubarb. Forget the daffodils or the cherry blossom heralding spring, I am look for the wide green leaves of the rhubarb. Rhubarb is high in Vitamin K and calcium both of which are important for bone health.
The leaves and roots are certainly not edible, they are poisonous – although I have never heard in any of the murder mysteries I have read of someone being “dun-in” by rhubarb. So when picking you are only going to pick, cook and eat the red stalks. Stalks that are still pale green can cause you to have an upset tummy.
As far back as the Elizabethan times, they knew that rhubarb stalks were good for constipation in small dose, but eating too much could give you a very sore tummy for quite some time. This laxative effect is why rhubarb is made into pies with other things like apples here in the UK and with strawberries in the USA. This served the cook well in two ways; firstly to dilute the effects of the rhubarb and secondly using up the last of the stored apples, those that had made it through the winter store and were now looking not their best and most appetising.
Nowadays, we use it as great flavour for things like smoothies, cordial, cheese cakes, pies, crumbles, fools, rice puddings, cakes, jams, tarts and even savoury dishes like curry.
Rhubarb is an attractive hardy perennial with large leaves and pink, red or greenish leaf stalks that are used as a dessert, often in pies and crumbles. Stems are usually picked in spring, but plants can be covered with pots to produce an early crop of blanched stalks in late winter. The flavour of rhubarb varies in sweetness depending on the age of the stems.
How to Grow
Keep rhubarb free of weeds by covering the ground with a mulch of composted manure, but avoid burying the crown as it will rot. Cover the area above the roots with 100g per sq m (4oz per sq yard) of general purpose fertiliser in March, and water regularly in dry spells to keep it moist and actively growing until autumn.
When the top growth dies back in autumn, remove the dead leaves to expose the crown to frost - this will help break dormancy and ensure a good crop of stalks the following year.
Where to Plant
Rhubarb needs an open, sunny site with moist, but free-draining soil as it hates being waterlogged in winter. Avoid frost pockets as stems are susceptible to frost. Each plant needs to be about a metre apart. Rhubarb can also be planted in very large pots at least 50cm (20in) deep and wide.
Keep the rhubarb well-watered in the hot weather. Give the plant and the area round the crown a big bucket full of water occasionally rather than a light sprinkle daily.
Crown rot: This is a common problem caused by various soil or water-borne fungi or bacteria. Plants look sickly, fail to grow and rot at the crown. This can spread to stems and foliage causing the plant die. The remedy for this is prompt action may save the plant. Remove affected areas by cutting well back into healthy tissue.
Do not harvest during the first year after planting as this will reduce vigour. Remove a few stems the next year, then up to a third or half from then on, leaving some to keep the plant in active growth.
To remove, hold the stalk at the base and ease it out of the ground, aiming to avoid snapping it off. Always grasp the stalks firmly near the base and pull with a sharp tug in the direction the stem is growing and the stalk will come clean away. Although rhubarb stems remain palatable and usable through summer, it is best not to over crop the plant and cease pulling by June. The Longest Day of the year is the last harvest day in my garden.
Lifting and Splitting
Once the clump is over 5 years old and it is starting to get a bit woody, it is a good idea to lift it and split it. These then can be put in to another area of the garden, a very large pot or into an allotment.
I am about to lift and separate some of my rhubarb, if you would like a small crown please let me know.
We have always grown ‘Timperley Early’ but we don’t bother with forcing it. It does just fine on its own and 2 crowns givens enough rhubarb for a family of 4 over the session.
My NVQ students who work in the garden centres have recommended the following four varieties ‘Glaskin’s Perpetual’, ‘Champagne’, Raspberry Red’ and ‘Fulton’s strawberry surprise’ as ones to try.