Kickstart the growing season by forcing a few tender pink sticks of this perennial favourite. Helen Billiald explains what to do
[SCROLL DOWN FOR A DELICIOUS RECIPE!]
Rhubarb is my green light harvest. Each February, bundling up a fist-full of lipstick-pink forced stems feels like we’re dropping the starter flag for the growing year ahead. Not only is it early, it’s also a joyously generous crop. Once planted, rhubarb will grow happily in the same spot for the next decade, pumping out chunky stalks from April through to June (after which it’s only polite to let plants have a breather). Think rhubarb crumble, chutney, muffins, vodka, fool or even savoury dishes – rhubarb goes beautifully with oily fish and roast pork too.
Rhubarb falls dormant in the first cold spells of November and December, meaning this is the perfect time to establish new plants. You can buy dormant crowns at local nurseries or order online – they look a bit like an old nub of wood, but don’t be disheartened, there should be a plump bud or two ready to leap into life. Or, if you know a friend with a healthy established plant, now’s the time to drop a hint or three.
These big, hardy, perennial plants need a sunny spot and at least a square metre of growing room. Imagine gunnera’s baby brother and you won’t be far wrong, so don’t try to shoehorn them in. Keep in mind, too, that their shady leaves become a great hiding spot for slugs and snails, so don’t plant your rhubarb next to pak choi or lettuce.
If space is limited, pick one vigorous cultivar such as ‘Victoria’. Two will allow you to force one into extra early production each year, and give a greater choice of cultivars that vary in harvest time, sweetness and colour (see cultivars, overleaf).
HOW TO PLANT RHUBARB
These are greedy plants that love moist but well-drained soil so add plenty of well-rotted compost or manure. Take care not to plant too deeply; position the top of the crown at soil level. Finish by applying a thick mulch of well-rotted organic matter around the plant (not over its top) and replenish this mulch every autumn. You could grow rhubarb in a container, but it would have to be a very large pot and you must keep on top of feeding and watering if plants are to thrive.
Don’t harvest any stems in the first year of growth – let the plant get established first. It’s particularly important to water plants well during dry spells over the first 12 months.
Start to harvest the following year but take care not to overdo it. Pull each stem from low down rather than cutting, which would leave behind a stub that might rot. Crack off the leaves and put them on the compost heap (they contain high levels of poisonous oxalic acid) then whisk the stems to the kitchen.
The usual rule is to stop picking on the longest day to give plants time to recover, and, having eaten well in April and May, this is no hardship. Remove any flowers as they appear; this helps keep the plant’s energy directed towards roots and shoots.
As plants die back towards the end of the year, clear away the old stems and leave the crown exposed to the coming cold. A period of chilling helps break the plant’s dormancy and launches it into growth again in the new year.
Rhubarb is gloriously self-reliant, especially if you mulch with compost each year. However if, over the years, you notice things becoming a little overcrowded, it is worth lifting and dividing plants to reinvigorate them.
Bury the early shoots under a bucket
HOW TO FORCE RHUBARB
Forcing rhubarb plants is a way to grow incredibly early stems that are extra sweet, tall and lipstick-pink due to a lack of light.
• Cover plants. Wait until plants have had a spell of cold weather then cover with a rhubarb forcer or upturned dustbin. The cover must have no holes, since forcing relies on absolute darkness.
• Speed it up. To bring things on faster still, pile up straw or layers of fleece outside the forcer to make it cosier inside.
• Harvest. Pull the stems as soon as there’s enough for a meal. Replace the forcer and it will keep producing. Allow the plant to rest for summer and let it grow normally the following year before forcing again.
Q When should I stop harvesting?
A Traditionally the longest day was seen as the time to stop pulling stems and allow the plant to recover. Stems become less palatable later in the season, plus as soft fruit starts to ripen there are other desserts to tempt the gardener. However, some newer cultivars now crop for much longer without a drop in condition. ‘Poulton’s Pride’ (DT Brown) and ‘Livingstone’ (pictured, Marshalls) both crop right into autumn.
Q Why is the crown rotting?
A Rhubarb doesn’t like waterlogged soil, which can lead to fungal rot where the woody crown turns soft and mushy. The only answer is to dig out, discard the infected plant and try again in a different site with better drainage.
Q Do I need to feed rhubarb?
A If you plant into good soil enriched with plenty of well-rotted compost or manure, there should be no need to feed your plant, especially if you continue to mulch with compost each year.
Q What should I do if flowers appear?
A It’s best to cut off rhubarb flowers as soon as they emerge, so the plant can focus its energy on leaf and stem growth instead.