If you like nothing more than sitting back and enjoying a deliciously hot rhubarb crumble or pie, why not grow your own ingredients and bake until you burst!
Rhubarb is seen as the easiest place to start for any first time vegetable grower due to its resilience. It’s known for being a very hardy and frost-resistant perennial vegetable, which needs a winter chilling period in order to produce the best crops. Harvested for its juicy, pink stems, a well-cared for and healthy plant will remain productive for 10 years or more.
Rhubarb Crowns, Seeds and ‘Budded Pieces’
Rhubarb can be grown from ‘crowns’, seeds or ‘budded pieces’. Growing from seeds is the most time consuming process, as it will take a year longer to produce stalks and to be ready for harvest.
‘Crowns’ are established plants that are already at least one year old and will therefore produce crops the harvest season after planting.
‘Budded Pieces’ are a divided portion of an established crown, which can be harvested two years after planting.
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Rhubarb plants are available in different varieties, but nearly all of them are best planted in Autumn or Spring, when the soil is warm and moist. Potted rhubarb can be planted at any time of the year as long as the soil is not frozen, waterlogged or suffering from drought.
All varieties of rhubarb plants develop deep root systems and grow best in a fertile, partially shaded area, in free-draining soil. These plants resent disturbance and therefore should be placed in a permanent spot, where they can grow from year to year, without interruption.
The soil will need to be well prepared in advance by digging in organic matter to a depth of 60cm, removing weeds and stones in the process. Many varieties of these plants can grow to be very large and will require a lot of space.
When using crowns and budded pieces, plant them with the top of the crown sitting roughly 2.5cm below the surface level. Gently firm down the surrounding soil and water well. The spacing between plants should be about 75cm for smaller varieties and about 120cm for larger varieties.
To grow rhubarb in a container, follow the same process, ensuring the container can hold a minimum of 40 litres of soil based compost, rich with organic matter in order to maintain the large root system.
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Rhubarb plants are very low maintenance, so with a bit of extra care they will flourish. To get the best crops from your rhubarb plants, follow these seasonal steps:
When rhubarb flowers appear on the plant, remove them immediately. This will allow the plant to efficiently use energy to grow tastier stems, instead of being used for flowering and setting seed. An additional boost of nutrition can also be given with a small quantity of general purpose fertilizer.
To prevent the soil from drying out in warmer periods water the rhubarb regularly. If growing in a container the plants will need to be watered more often to keep the compost moist.
When the leaves begin to die back, cut the old rhubarb stalks back to expose the buds to cold winter weather. Use organic matter around the crown of the plant to retain moisture and deter weeds, whilst providing nutrition for the following growing season. Be careful not to cover the crown as this can contribute to crown rot.
Rhubarb crowns will need to be lifted and divided every 5-6 years to maintain their vigour and ensure future productivity. A spade can be used to split the crown in to 3 or 4 new crowns that can be replanted separately. Each piece should have a healthy looking bud on it, which will produce the next years new shoots. As before the new crowns should be placed in a hole about 2.5cm below the soils surface, with the roots facing downwards.
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If you’re short on time and need to speed up the growing process, forcing is a way to accomplish an earlier harvest. As soon as signs of growth begin to appear, cover the plant with a large container or pot in order to exclude any light. The lack of light and created heat effect will cause the stems to ripen within 4-8 weeks, about a month earlier than an unforced harvest.
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Rhubarb plants need to have been established for at least a year before they can be harvested, so it is best to resist the urge and wait until the second year, when the leaves have fully unfurled and the stems are 30cm long.
To harvest, pull each rhubarb stalk from the base of the stem and twist away from the crown. Only harvest a few stems at a time, never taking more than half of the stems at once to avoid over-cropping.
Make sure to allow enough time from the end of harvesting, for the plant to regain enough energy reserves for the next years crops. Once harvested rhubarb can be easily stored and also frozen to get the most from your plants all year round. Just remember to dispose of the leaves as they contain oxalic acid, which is toxic when eaten.
So with a few simple steps it’s easy to grow and maintain your own rhubarb plants, to start getting creative in the kitchen and baking tasty treats.
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