Expert tips... Rhubarb, Rhubarb, Rhubarb
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.