Grow Your Own

Rhubarb

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.

Rhubarb

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.

To get an earlier crop, you can force stems. To force stems, cover the crown with a traditional forcing jar, bucket or upturned pot in late winter, ensuring that all light is blocked out. Cover drainage holes in pots with a brick or stones. When stems reach the top of the container, they are ready for harvesting. Forced stems are lighter-coloured and more tender than those grown in the open, and are generally ready three weeks earlier.

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.

It can be grown from seed, but it's more common to plant dormant crowns between autumn and spring. Prepare the ground by digging in two bucketfuls per square metre/yard of well-rotted manure, then spread out the roots and plant so the tip of the crown is just visible above the soil.

Pot-grown rhubarb can be planted at any time, but will need plenty of water during dry spells. Space plants 75-90cm (30-36in) apart, with 30cm (12in) between rows.

Rhubarb can also be planted in very large pots at least 50cm (20in) deep and wide.

Common problems

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.

Remedy: Prompt action may save the plant. Remove affected areas by cutting well back into healthy tissue.

Slugs and snails

Slugs and snails: These feed on the young seedlings and you'll see the tell tale slime trail on the soil around your crop, as well as on the leaves.

Remedy: There are many ways to control slugs and snails, including beer traps, sawdust or eggshell barriers, copper tape and biocontrols.

More info on Slugs and snails

Harvesting

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. Although rhubarb stems remain palatable and usable through summer, it is best not to over crop the plant and cease pulling by June, or at least only remove a few stalks after then.

Recipes

Nigel Slater's roast rhubarb, which is allowed to brown slightly creates a delicious mixture of sweet and tart. Best served with vanilla ice cream or frozen yoghurt.

Varieties

Hawkes Champagne AGM:Compact plants with high yield potential. It has attractive, bright red, medium length, uniform stems.

Victoria:Late type with heavy yields.

Timperley Early AGM:Thick stems, early, high yield. Bred for forcing; performs very well outside, but even better colour when forced.


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