Rhubarb tastes – and looks – great. Tart, tangy flavour and beautiful pink stalks…there’s no wonder it’s enjoying something of a renaissance on the covers of foodie magazines. Rhubarb has been a staple on home plots in Ireland and the UK for many years and there’s a good reason for it: Apart from being delicious, it’s so easy to grow there’s really no excuse not to.
Beginner grow-your-owners and weekend warriors alike will appreciate rhubarb’s capacity to thrive with very little input from you. Better still, it’s one of the few things that’s ready to be harvested at this time of year (February) which is also a good time to plant it. It’s hardy and frost-resistant – it actually needs a good cold spell to produce the tastiest stalks.
How to grow Rhubarb:
You can start from seed but there are two good reasons not to: The most important one is that you’ll add a year’s waiting time to your first harvest. Slightly less importantly, growing from seed is a bit more challenging than planting ‘crowns’ – known as ‘root divisions’ in horticulture-speak.
Pick your spot: Sunny and well-drained is best. And be choosy: Rhubarb is a perennial, with some varieties known to keep trucking for 20 years (“Victoria”), so choose a spot that you’re happy to hand over to it for a long time. Rhubarb needs a good blast of cold weather, so if you’ve got a spot where you know the ground is likely to freeze, that’s perfect.
Prepare the ground by digging 2-3 feet deep (up to a metre) hole and working in plenty of compost or well-rotted farmyard manure with the removed soil. Mature rhubarb plants put down deep roots. Refill the hole to within 2-3 inches (approx 5-7cms).
Plant the crowns about a metre/three feet apart, covering just enough to keep the buds below the surface of the soil. Pat down well and water thoroughly.
Be patient…Don’t harvest in the first year – you need to give the plant enough time to establish itself. In the second year, only harvest stems that are an inch or more thick (2.5cms). By the third year, you’re good to go…Pull and twist gently from the lower stems, don’t cut or you’ll damage the plant.
Maintain plants by watering regularly – don’t let roots dry out. You can remove flowers as they appear too – this encourages stalk production. Every 5-6 years, lift and divide the plants by splitting into 4 separate crowns using a spade. Replant the crowns– or give to your friends – just ensure that each one has an ‘eye’ or bud on it.
Pests, problems, solutions…Rhubarb is largely pest-free and unlikely to trouble you. If you do find a small rust-coloured beetle on your plant, that’s rhubarb curculio – just pick them off. Its eggs are usually to be found on wild dock leaves, so if you have some growing nearby, you know what to do…
Forcing rhubarb…Gives you sweeter stems and simply involves covering plants with a large pot or container to exclude light. To do this on outdoor plants, you need to cover as soon as it begins to show signs of stem growth. You can also force rhubarb indoors by lifting crowns in November, leaving them out on the soil for a couple of weeks – this breaks their dormancy (and you want stem growth to sweeten!). This time, the crowns are planted into pots; exclude light by covering with other pots or black polythene. Keep the pots in a cool glasshouse or shed – in about 4 weeks, the combination of darkness and warmth generated by the polythene will deliver sweet stalks ready to cook up a colourful winter storm.
Rhubarb…a potted history…
Originally from Asia, rhubarb was largely used medicinally in Europe, until the first recipes began appearing in the 1800s. It was only really when sugar became affordable that it came into its own as a food to be enjoyed.
Market gardener Joseph Myatt is credited with commercialising rhubarb – his ‘Victoria’ variety continues to be popular and can produce stems up to 1kg in weight. Myatt’s rival Edward Hawke’s ‘Champagne’ variety is equally popular today and known for its sweetness. There’s even a variety named after uber-botanist Carl Linnaeus, who introduced rhubarb to his native Sweden – and claimed it was his greatest achievement.