Rhubarb is an attractive hardy perennial with large leaves and pink, red or greenish leaf stalks that are used as a dessert, often in pies and crumbles. Stems are usually picked in spring, but plants can be covered with pots to produce an early crop of blanched stalks in late winter. The flavour of rhubarb varies in sweetness depending on the age of the stems.
Keep rhubarb free of weeds by covering the ground with a mulch of composted manure, but avoid burying the crown as it will rot. Cover the area above the roots with 100g per sq m (4oz per sq yard) of general purpose fertiliser in March, and water regularly in dry spells to keep it moist and actively growing until autumn.
When the top growth dies back in autumn, remove the dead leaves to expose the crown to frost - this will help break dormancy and ensure a good crop of stalks the following year.
To get an earlier crop, you can force stems. To force stems, cover the crown with a traditional forcing jar, bucket or upturned pot in late winter, ensuring that all light is blocked out. Cover drainage holes in pots with a brick or stones. When stems reach the top of the container, they are ready for harvesting. Forced stems are lighter-coloured and more tender than those grown in the open, and are generally ready three weeks earlier.
Rhubarb needs an open, sunny site with moist, but free-draining soil as it hates being waterlogged in winter. Avoid frost pockets as stems are susceptible to frost.
The two main considerations you should have in mind when preparing the ground for rhubarb are its ultimate size and the length of time it can be expected to occupy the space. It will keep on producing succulent stems for at least 12 years and with regular lifting and dividing – like any other perennial plant – a clump can occupy the same ground almost indefinitely. Don’t think you can squeeze a plant into a tight space when realistically the stems and leaves will grow out 60cm from the centre of the plant in every direction.
Prepare the ground by digging in two bucketfuls per square metre/yard of well-rotted manure, then spread out the roots and plant so the tip of the crown is just visible above the soil.
The best time to plant these crowns is from November through to early March, as long as the ground is workable and isn’t frozen solid. Alternatively, pot-grown rhubarb can be planted at any time of the year but it will need plenty of watering if you’re going to set it into place during a warm summer.
Dig a hole in your prepared site, slightly wider and deeper than the crown. Carefully lower in the young plant and fill in around it with the enriched soil, firming in as you go with the heel of your boot. It’s important that no air pockets are left, as they can cause the plants to dry out and make them slower to establish, so feed in the soil meticulously. The tip – or bud – of the crown should be at or just below the final soil level – certainly no deeper than 2.5cm, otherwise it may struggle to break through. On heavier soils, make sure the tip of the crown is (just) poking proud of soil level to prevent water puddling around it, which can lead to rotting. Thoroughly water in new plants to settle the soil around them.
Do not harvest during the first year after planting as this will reduce vigour. Remove a few stems the next year, then up to a third or half from then on, leaving some to keep the plant in active growth. To remove, hold the stalk at the base and ease it out of the ground, aiming to avoid snapping it off. Although rhubarb stems remain palatable and usable through summer, it is best not to over crop the plant and cease pulling by June, or at least only remove a few stalks after then.
In order to keep the plants healthy, rhubarb should be divided every five or six years during winter, when dormant. Each plant can be split into three or four separate crowns with a spade. Make sure each crown has an 'eye', or a large bud that will provide next year's shoots.
Dig out a hole slightly larger than the divided plants and place the crown in the hole with its roots facing downwards. The top of the crown should be 2.5cm (1in) below the soil surface. Mark where the crown has been planted with a cane or stones until new shoots appear above the soil surface in late February or March.
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