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27 January 2014

Raising Rhubarb

Rhubarb is a good plant to start with for the first-time fruit and vegetable gardener as it doesn't require too much attention and will reward you with tasty stalks when there is little else ready to be harvested in the garden.

Rhubarb is a very hardy plant, and actually needs a period of frost in the winter in order to produce the best stalks, for which it is grown.

All varieties grow best in a fertile, partially shaded, free-draining soil, which should be dug over four weeks before planting. Add as much organic matter as you can to the soil, removing any stones you encounter, as rhubarb plants develop a deep root system.

Although rhubarb can be grown from seed, the best option is to buy one-year-old plants, known as 'crowns', that have been divided from strong, disease-free plants. These should be available at your local garden centre.

Prepare the soil, then plant your rhubarb in late autumn to early winter, digging a hole a little bit wider than the plant. The top of the plant should be at, or just below the soil surface. Gently firm the surrounding soil and water well.

Bear in mind that many varieties grow to be very large plants, and require a lot of space. Allow about 75cm (30in) between plants for smaller varieties, and up to 120cm (48in) for larger varieties.

Spread a new layer of compost around the plant after the leaves have died down in order to conserve water and suppress weeds. Remove flowers as soon as they appear in the early spring, as allowing flowers to set seed will weaken the plant.

So that your plants stay healthy, divide them every five or six years during winter, rhubarb's dormant period. Split each plant into three or four separate crowns with a spade, ensuring that each crown has an 'eye', or a large bud that will provide next year's shoots. Dig a hole slightly larger than the new plants and place the crown in the hole with its roots facing downwards, and the top of the crown 2.5cm (1in) below the soil surface. Mark the position of the new crown as it won't be visible until new shoots appear above the soil surface in late February or March.

Rhubarb is usually forced in order to produce an earlier harvest of sweeter stems that don't need peeling. Cover outdoor plants with a container or large pot to exclude the light as soon as they begin to show signs of growth.

To force indoors, lift whole crowns in November and place them on the soil surface to be chilled for two weeks in order to break their period of dormancy. Pot each crown up with compost and bring into a cool greenhouse, before covering with forcing pots or black polythene to completely exclude any light. The heating effect of the cover coupled with the lack of light will quickly cause the rhubarb to ripen and it will be ready to eat within four weeks.

Allow rhubarb to become established for the first year before taking your first harvest. Select three of the largest stalks when the leaves have fully opened before pulling from May to August. Gently twist off the stems and pull them from the base of the plant rather than cut them off. Do not eat rhubarb leaves as they contain oxalic acid and are poisonous.

Rhubarb doesn't suffer from many diseases - the main threat being crown rot, especially if conditions are wet. This fungal infection occurs at the base of the stalks, causing the crowns to turn brown and soften. To avoid crown rot, make sure rhubarb is planted in fertile, well-drained, weed-free soil. Any plants found to be suffering from rot should be dug up and destroyed immediately.

Try growing one or more of the following varieties

‘Early Champagne’ – even cardinal red colour throughout length of stem. Good, strong, reliable cultivar.

‘Timperley Early’ – base deep red, passing to light green with red flecking. Heavy cropper. Good for forcing. Frost susceptible.

'Prince Albert' - an early variety with good long stalk.

'Ace of hearts' - a good choice for a smaller garden.

‘Hawke’s Champagne’ – even currant red colour throughout length of stem. Leaves heart-shaped and attractive. Reliable early variety.

‘Victoria’ – Late with Very thick cardinal red stems. Good for forcing - a classic allotment favourite.

'Mammoth red' - grows up to 1.5m (5ft) high.
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