A jewel in the crown for flavour

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

Rhubarb is unique: it is a veg­etable (a leaf stalk) that’s most of­ten used in desserts – you can even dip the stalks in su­gar and eat them raw. It’s also a her­ba­ceous peren­nial, dy­ing down in au­tumn only to bounce back with in­cred­i­ble vigour in the spring. And it can be forced to pro­duce sweeter and more suc­cu­lent sticks by cov­er­ing it with a ter­ra­cotta forc­ing pot or a dust­bin in Jan­uary.

For the best flavour, it’s worth in­vest­ing in a named va­ri­ety of rhubarb as it will give you years of eat­ing. Which? Gar­den­ing tested 11 va­ri­eties to find the best flavoured – for re­sults, see far right.

How to grow rhubarb

The best time to plant rhubarb crowns is from Novem­ber to De­cem­ber when they are dor­mant, but you can wait un­til spring.

Rhubarb grows best in a sunny spot with rich, moist soil that doesn’t water­log.

Give it at least one me­tre to spread, and dig in plenty of well-rot­ted ma­nure or gar­den com­post.

Plant the crown with the top bud just be­low the sur­face. Ap­ply a bal­anced fer­tiliser, such as Grow­more, each March, fol­lowed by a ni­tro­gen fer­tiliser, such as dried blood or sul­phate of am­mo­nia, in June.

Mulch with gar­den com­post or well-rot­ted ma­nure in au­tumn.

You can prop­a­gate large clumps by chop­ping off younger pieces from the out­side with a spade. Pieces that have a cou­ple of healthy buds should pro­duce a vig­or­ous new clump in no time. Re­place older clumps as they start to lose vigour.

Buy­ing ad­vice

Rhubarb is usu­ally sold as a crown – the un­der­ground part of a one or two-year-old plant that sur­vives over win­ter. It should have a cou­ple of healthy buds. You’ll find a lim­ited choice of va­ri­eties in gar­den cen­tres. If you want un­usual va­ri­eties, in­clud­ing the Best Buys, you’ll have to buy by mail or­der. Crowns cost about £10-£12 for three. It’s best to wait un­til the sec­ond year be­fore har­vest­ing.

Thomp­son & Mor­gan also sells “bud­ded pieces” – a sin­gle healthy bud with a small piece of a larger crown – es­pe­cially of more un­usual va­ri­eties. They cost about £10 for two. Th­ese might take longer to es­tab­lish, so you can’t ex­pect a crop un­til the sec­ond spring.

You can buy pot­ted plants, but this is the most ex­pen­sive op­tion, up to £22.99 for a three-litre pot. Fi­nally, you can grow rhubarb from seed, and ‘Glaskin’s Per­pet­ual’ is a good choice. How­ever, this was one of the poorest­tast­ing va­ri­eties in the taste test.

Rhubarb in flower

Rhubarb plants oc­ca­sion­ally throw up large flower spikes. Th­ese are spec­tac­u­lar and would not be out of place in a large her­ba­ceous bor­der. Un­for­tu­nately, flow­er­ing weak­ens the plant and greatly re­duces crop­ping. Cut off the flower stalks or dis­card the cen­tre of an old clump – or prop­a­gate as de­scribed above.

How to force

Get an even ear­lier crop by cov­er­ing the clump with a ter­ra­cotta forc­ing pot or a plas­tic dust­bin in Jan­uary to ex­clude all light. The crowns need a cold pe­riod fol­lowed by a frost-free pe­riod in the dark to pro­duce a flush of pale, suc­cu­lent stalks. If you force a plant, give it a year to re­cover be­fore forc­ing again.

How to har­vest

From April on­wards, pull the stalks rather than cut them. You’ll find they de­tach eas­ily with­out leav­ing a stump to rot. Dis­card the leaves as they are poi­sonous. Al­ways leave three or four strong stems and keep pulling the young ten­der ones. You should stop pick­ing in late June to al­low the plant to re­cover and build up re­serves for the next year.

The Na­tional Col­lec­tion of rhubarb is at RHS Gar­den Wis­ley (rhs.org.uk)

Clum­ber Park in Not­ting­hamshire runs a Rhubarb Event in May, with tast­ings and cook­ery demos (na­tion­al­trust.org.uk/ clum­ber-park)

Where to buy

Ashridge Nurs­eries (01963 359444; ashrid­getrees.co.uk), Chris Bow­ers (01366 388752; chris­bow­ers.co.uk), Cro­cus (08445 572233; cro­cus.co.uk), DT Brown (0845 371 0532; dt­brownseeds.co.uk); Mar­shalls Seeds (0844 557 6700; mar­shallsseeds.co.uk); Mr Fothergill’s (0845 371 0518; mr-fothergills.co.uk); Thomp­son & Mor­gan (0844 517 1818; thomp­son-mor­gan.com); Un­wins (0844 573 8400; un­wins.co.uk)

Dark arts: A ter­ra­cotta forcer has been used to pro­duce some de­li­cious early stems of ‘Vic­to­ria’

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