Winter Fruit: Rhubarb

Well yes, it’s a vegetable. But it eats like fruit. Anyway, I was thrilled when after a long hot spring and summer, my rhubarb started showing signs of life in autumn.

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I planted three rhubarb crowns in the garden last winter. This is what they looked like when they went into their no-dig bed:

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Then last spring, happy growth:

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Then summer this year, you can make out sum of the heat stress/sunburn (?) on the leaves behind the pumpkin – they look crinkly and brittle and are turning up:

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Looking a bit happier in autumn:

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And then, tah-dah! This winter:

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Don’t be fooled by the sun. I can count the number of sunny days since autumn on one hand.

Cultivation

Rhubarb prefers cool climates and needs shade from summer heat in hot summers (like we get). Rhubarb likes rich, moist, deep and free-draining soil. It likes slightly acidic soil. I planted mine into no-dig beds, which were made of layers of pea straw, cow manure and compost, sprinkled with blood and bone. They should be planted about 90cm apart, depending on the size.

Harvesting

Like asparagus, you’re supposed to leave it for a few years to establish (giving the crowns time to grow) before picking. I started picking mine this winter only one year after planting as it was fairly plentiful already, but I didn’t go crazy. I’m hoping in spring to see lots of new growth. You’re advised to remove flower stems as they appear. Stephanie Alexander suggests putting them in a vase. You can practice ‘forcing’ or blanching rhubarb in spring, to produce pale pink stems. I’ve not done it, this being the first spring where I think I can actually harvest some, but here is what Bek of Bek’s Backyard in Melbourne said about her accidentally forced rhubarb.

Container Growing

Most people will advise against growing rhubarb in pots. They’re a bit like citrus. They are hungry and thirsty plants and harder to keep healthy in pots which dry out easily and leach nutrients and need more topping up of both than free ranging plants.

I have three of these Diggers dwarf Ruby Red plants that I’ve been growing in pots for about three years now. This is them in happier days:

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This is one of those plants now:

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And this is the other….

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Yes, I am transplanting them into the garden. The roots on the dwarf plants in pots were growing out the bottom and into the soil underneath. The pots are about 40cm wide and 50cm deep. They were a pain to keep watered in summer, although admittedly I left them in a really hot spot, whereas the rhubarb in the ground gets afternoon shade.  I’m also terrible at remembering to feed plants. To transplant I had to chop the roots off to get the plants out of the port. It wasn’t easy. The plant seems happy though, despite the rough treatment. I know you are supposed to divide older rhubarb clumps once they become less productive, usually by slicing down the middle with a spade, so I guess it’s not surprising it’s done well.

Conclusion: I would suggest you plant rhubarb in a very large pot – even a half wine barrel, if you want to go down the container route. And be prepared to water and feed a lot.

Pests

Something has been eating it from the start but not so much that it’s been a problem:

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Which brings me to another topic…

Rhubarb and Chooks

All the books say “DON’T FEED YOUR CHOOKS RHUBARB”. But my chooks, which are now free-ranging around this part of the garden, seem to love eating it. So much so I had to put some barriers around it because one plant was suffering. For the record, they haven’t died yet (the chooks, that is).

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You can see stems with no leaves – chook damage!

Rhubarb as Companions

I think if you have the space, rhubarb is a pretty good companion plant to shade the soil and roots of fruit trees. You can see how it spreads and the older stems hang low over the ground.

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I planted rhubarb with feijoas as they have similar nutritional and water requirements. I’m transplanting the container grown ones into beds with citrus. I think I’ll plant more along the bed with my espaliered apples which also get afternoon shade. It will be a rhubarb ‘hedge’. It’s quite pretty in its own way.

Year-Round Harvest?

Most sources say one or two plants are enough for an average family. But I don’t see how that would make for regular picking even the were enormously productive plants. I was recently watching a gardening DVD about the kitchen garden at Lambley Nursery in Ascot near Ballarat (similar climate to here), and the owner, David Glenn has what looks to be at least ten plants.

I think you could pick rhubarb year round in this cool-temperate climate if you had enough plants to keep you going over the hot months, when the plants struggle the most and don’t really grow. I have three healthy plants in the ground which after one year isn’t enough to pick from regularly. So, I’ve planted two more (Diggers Club again, ‘Cherry Red’ and ‘Big Boy’), which together with the three dwarf plants makes eight plants in total. I’m planting lots of different varieties to see if any do better over summer than others. Big Boy is apparently from Queensland, so I was wondering whether that might be more heat-tolerant. Probably not. Anyway, I shall report back on year-round harvest-ability in a year or two.

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Newly planted Cherry Red rhubarb.

Recipes

I only have one to share that I have personally tried so far, but it is a total winner, so don’t hesitate to make this. Nigel Slater, you are a master. I really, really love this method of cooking rhubarb before you add it to the cake – roasted slowly in the oven so it still holds its shape. Really delicious.

Rhubarb, Polenta and Cinnamon Cake

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/feb/22/rhubarb-polenta-cake

I’ll add more as I go along. So far I’ve been getting a lot of inspiration from Nigel Slater (check out his two volume kitchen garden companion “Tender”) and Jamie Oliver (I’m quite late to the Jamie bandwagon but I really love his book “Jamie At Home”) and Annabel Langbein.

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4 thoughts on “Winter Fruit: Rhubarb

  1. Pingback: Winter in the Garden: July | bluetongue greenthumb

  2. Pingback: Early Spring in the Garden: September | bluetongue greenthumb

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