EVERY year at this time, one of our big clumps of rhubarb starts fl opping into a state of surrender in anticipation of winter. Instead of sticking up boldly, as they have during spring and summer, the stems are now foolishly sprawled fl at on the ground and even those big green leaves are starting to look exhausted.
This is the big, green- stemmed variety Victoria. By halfway through June there will be little to see, apart from the shrivelled remnants of stems and foliage. Our big old clump, handily planted next to the garden tap used to wash the soil from carrots and other root- crops, has not been divided for about eight years.
Last summer it threw up a desperate protest in the form of several rather vulgar- looking fl ower spikes. They were quickly snapped off and the ageing, badly congested rhubarb clump didn’t bother trying again.
This always happens when we take too long to divide established clumps. This job should take place at least every three years. Old, neglected rhubarb develops enormous, woody, half- dead crowns, often surrounded by younger roots.
The trouble is caused by increasing amounts of dead material below the ground. It prevents younger growth – usually on the outside of the main crown – from spreading its own roots and growing properly.
Division is easy, but it takes a bit of deep digging to do the job properly. Wait until winter when all leaves and stems have withered. Rake the debris clear, then go right around the clump with a sharp spade, driving it in vertically. Finally, lever the lot out of the ground.
If you’ve never done this before, you’ll be astonished at the size of the root mass. It can be enormous. Use a hose jet to blast off all soil and to expose the so- called “eyes” at the top. These are just big, dormant buds and in an old clump there can be up to a dozen.
Use your spade to chop up the crown to create several divisions, each containing just two “eyes”. There will be lots of blackened, semi- decayed or dead material which can be cut free and discarded.
The healthy divisions can be replanted, some even in the same spot – but always in full sun and in perfectly drained conditions. Most important of all, the soil must fi rst be enriched.
Of all the plants we grow, rhubarb is among those that can never be over- fertilised. I will happily dig in a full bag of sheep manure for each new division. Work it in as deeply as possible. Then I’ll add half a bucket of pelletised poultry manure, supplemented with blood and bone. The lot is thoroughly mixed into the soil and then watered with heavily diluted seaweed concentrate.
Healthy rhubarb divisions are inserted into this fertile mixture, with the prominent buds on top and just below the surface. You’ll be amazed not only by the speed of growth from early spring, but delighted with the fl avour of your liberated rhubarb.
However, during the fi rst season avoid picking too many sticks to allow newly planted clumps to fully develop. Later up to half the sticks can be harvested.
I should mention that green- stemmed rhubarb always remains green. The colour