Ex­pert tips... Rhubarb, Rhubarb, Rhubarb

Period Living - - Reclamation -

Mick Lavelle, gar­den­ing ex­pert and se­nior lec­turer in hor­ti­cul­ture at Writ­tle Uni­ver­sity Col­lege, of­fers sea­sonal ad­vice

It is of­ten cold and some­what cheerless in Feb­ru­ary and our New Year ‘di­etary re­solve’ of­ten ebbs with the pas­sage of the moon. If your thoughts turn to food – specif­i­cally the win­ter com­fort va­ri­ety – top of this list may well be a dessert treat.

As a child, one of my favourite com­fort desserts was a bowl of stewed rhubarb and cus­tard. In the post-war years, the pop­u­lar­ity of rhubarb waned un­til it was al­most a rar­ity on the English menu. By the noughties, how­ever, it was de­clared a ‘su­per­food’ and its pop­u­lar­ity has soared ever since. Iron­i­cally, the medic­i­nal char­ac­ter­is­tic now cited is ac­tu­ally the rea­son it ar­rived in cul­ti­va­tion. It wasn’t un­til the 18th cen­tury – as sugar be­came cheap and read­ily avail­able – that rhubarb be­came pop­u­lar as a food. Prior to this, it was known mainly as a medic­i­nal herb. So, why talk about some­thing that is (es­sen­tially) a sum­mer crop in the midst of win­ter? Be­cause now is the time to get the process of grow­ing it un­der­way. Feb­ru­ary is an ideal time to plant rhubarb, which is best when planted in an open, sunny site with moist, but free-drain­ing soil. Make sure that the site where you plant it is not li­able to wa­ter­log­ging as rhubarb can be prone to rot­ting in win­ter.

It is most com­monly planted as dor­mant ‘crowns’ (a sec­tion of the plant with roots and one or more buds at­tached) in late au­tumn or win­ter, but is also avail­able as pot-grown spec­i­mens, which can be planted through­out the year. Pre­pare the ground by dig­ging in a cou­ple of buck­ets of well-rot­ted com­post or ma­nure per square me­tre, then plant each crown so that the tip is just vis­i­ble above the soil. Leave 75-90cm be­tween plants to al­low for fu­ture growth.

Rhubarb should never be har­vested in its first year after plant­ing, as this weak­ens the plant, but in the se­cond year, it is al­right to re­move a few stems. From then on up to a third or half can be re­moved un­til June, leav­ing enough to keep the plant alive. There are many good cul­ti­vars avail­able, but ‘Cham­pagne’, ‘Tim­per­ley Early’ and ‘Stock­bridge Ar­row’ are es­pe­cially rec­om­mended va­ri­eties of rhubarb.

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