An early BBC QI programme, which I rewatched the other day, asked the panellists whether they knew of the Rhubarb Triangle, which prompted me to write this article. It is, of course, the perfect growing conditions in a few square miles from Morley to Wakefield to Rothwell. But if you live outside of these hallowed rhubarb-growing grounds, how can you grow perfect rhubarb?
New developments in rhubarb breeding have resulted in sweeter stalks and earlier croppers. In fact, “Pink Blossom” can be harvested from late February to late July.
All rhubarb can be grown in either full sun or part shade. The soil needs to be moist but well-drained. If you have heavy or light sandy clay soils add homemade compost and well-rotted manure.
Pot grown rhubarb can be planted at any time of the year, such as now, whereas bare-rooted crowns are planted in the winter. In each case, the crown should be 2.5cm below the soil’s surface.
If growing more than one variety then leave space between each plant as rhubarb does like to grow. Leave an 80cm gap.
Like strawberries, rhubarb can be split/divided in autumn or early spring to keep the plant healthy and cropping well, by replanting the healthy divisions and discarding any parts of the crown that are no longer producing healthy stems.
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Rhubarb is a hungry plant, so top dress with compost or well-rotted manure in the spring to a depth of 7.5cm. This will help maintain moisture levels, and keep down the competition from weeds, but gardeners should make sure the emerging buds are clear of the mulch.
Every couple of months from now until autumn you can scatter chicken manure pellets around the plant and gently fork them in or apply a general liquid fertiliser.
Rhubarb is grown for the long haul. Any newly planted crowns should be allowed to grow for a year without picking any of the stems and then in the second-year pick only 3 to 5 stalks.
The main season is May to August, but the earlier you pick them the sweeter the stems. Look at the plant.
You want to select stems with good colours and leaves that have started to unfold completely. The stems should be between 15cm and 40cm in length.
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Never cut the stems, as the remaining section of the stem will just wither away.
Firmly but gently grip the stem as close as possible to the crown/ground level then twist the stem as you pull it. This allows the stem to separate from the plant and tells the crown to regrow a new stalk.
If the stalk doesn’t come away immediately, try leaning the stem in the other direction and then twist and pull. Ideally, you only want to harvest a third of the plant in any one season.
Never eat the leaves as they are high in oxalic acid, which is toxic to humans.
It can cause burns, nausea, severe gastroenteritis, vomiting and even convulsions.
Stop picking the stems during the summer to allow the plant to build up reserves for the following year. You can, of course, force rhubarb to grow and be harvested earlier. Start forcing the crowns in winter by placing a bucket, a large pot or a terracotta rhubarb forcer over the entire crown.
The aim is to block out all light. You can even pack straw around or reuse and tie bubble wrap to insulate the outside of the bucket, pot or forcer. Limiting light forces the plant to grow in search of it.
The sweet, tender stems will be big enough (20cm to 30cm in length) for harvesting in seven to eight weeks. Any crowns that have been forced should not be harvested in the summer or the following year.
Great varieties to try are “Grandad’s Favourite” which has the RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM), “Hawke’s Champagne” AGM and “Raspberry Red” AGM.
I love rhubarb crumble, with an additional oat topping. Pair this up with cream, custard or ice cream for, in my opinion, the perfect dessert. Fresh young stems are also delicious with pork chops, as a coating with apricot on barbequed chicken or used as a dressing on a summer salad.
Enjoy this wonderful vegetable in savoury dishes and sweet desserts.
It’s rich in antioxidants, especially anthocyanins (which give it its red colour) and proanthocyanidins, is high in fibre and can help lower blood cholesterol levels.
It also has anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-cancer properties, which is why it was used so much for medicinal purposes. But however you enjoy it relish the sweet-sour taste and savour its seasonality.