An immovable tenant of abandoned gardens, rhubarb is in fashion again and still enjoyed as our first and hardiest pie filling. Willy Newlands advises on how to grow rhubarb
To grow rhubarb used to be the preserve of West Yorkshire’s Rhubarb Triangle rather than for the humble kitchen garden, but the hardy plants have fought their neglect and are firmly back in fashion. Willy Newlands celebrates our hardiest pie filling and suggests how to best grow rhubarb at home.
HOW TO GROW RHUBARB AT HOME
Once upon a time, 90% of the world’s commercial crop of rhubarb was picked by candlelight in wooden sheds in Yorkshire. Every night between Christmas and Easter a train left Ardsley station for the London markets with 200 tons of the pale-pink stems.
Tropical fruit and air transport killed most of that trade, but rhubarb is a great survivor. Chefs are coming back to its distinctive, tart flavour and there is certainly plenty of rhubarb in British gardens. In fact, it just refuses to go away.
The typical plants of a long-abandoned garden are fruit bushes and rhubarb. The blackcurrants and gooseberries fight a long, losing battle with bugs and blights but the big, poisonous leaves of the “pie plant” flourish, free of disease and untouched by rabbits or sheep.
The handles and rims of rusting buckets mark the place where gardeners first started to grow rhubarb, encouraging it to send up its tender, edible stems under cover in the early spring, the first “fruits” of the year and the easiest to grow.
WHERE DOES RHUBARB COME FROM?
The home of wild rhubarb is Central Asia and you can grow rhubarb almost anywhere. Curiously, it needs cold more than warmth and is nudged into life in the spring only if it has had a few weeks of near-freezing weather to set its biological clock.
My wife, Dorothy, and I visited the Faroe Islands last summer and were amused to discover that the only “fruit” grown on the islands, far to the north of Shetland, is rhubarb. They grow rhubarb in every garden and churchyard. It even features on a postage stamp celebrating the summer menu of these steep, wet islands, pictured alongside dried sheep heads and smoked puffins. We now treat this plant with some respect – it is almost indestructible.
It came to Europe via the Silk Road as a dried root, powdered and taken as a remedy for constipation. It was enormously valuable and the czars of Russia tried to monopolise the trade. Even as late as Victorian times, the Chinese thought that one effective way to fight back against the British Empire’s opium trade would be to threaten to cut off the supplies of laxative rhubarb.
By the late 1700s, however, the English were starting to grow rhubarb, not only as a medicinal plant but as a pie-filler, gradually ousting the gooseberry from its monopoly under the pastry. For more than a century it was the first fresh taste of spring.
DIVIDE OLD RHUBARB PLANTS IN FEBRUARY
Now is the time to break into that ancient clump of rhubarb beside the compost heap and create some useful, productive plants. The woody core may be immovable with hand tools (a small JCB is useful), so carve out the next generation of rhubarb with the help of a narrow spade and an old breadknife. Cut off slices, each with a bud on top and a solid chunk of root below.
With many garden plants, one of the problems with rescuing old specimens is the fact that today’s varieties of fruit and veg are much more productive than the old ones, which have wonderful names but thin crops. Rhubarb, by contrast, has been pretty much the same since Victorian times. To grow rhubarb, your bud-topped slices, planted so that the red bud can see the light, will thrive if given some farmyard manure and a place in the sun or semi-shade. Give them time to establish and expect a modest harvest of stems from their second year onwards. The flower stems are spectacular, rising 5ft or more, but should be removed to encourage faster development of the roots.
If you do not want to devote an entire nursery bed to rhubarb it is worth remembering that, due to its decorative foliage, this is also a spectacular dot plant in the herbaceous border. When you grow rhubarb, it can also provide a harvest for the kitchen if you put the individual plants under plastic buckets in late winter, gale-proofing them with a brick on top. These eyesores can be tidied away long before the rest of the garden wakes up for summer.
When you grow rhubarb at home, the earliest fruit is cultivated by establishing smallish plants in the kitchen garden, bringing them into a dark and slightly warmer shed in midwinter, potted in compost, and harvesting stems after four to six weeks for your rhubarb crumble.
Even if you forget all about your rhubarb – “Oh, damn! I meant to cover those up…” – you can still pick the young stems right through until summer. It couldn’t be easier to grow rhubarb at home.
RECIPE: OH SO SIMPLE RHUBARB JAM
Making the earliest jam of the year is easy, and this is how to go about it.
Take 1.8kg (4lb) rhubarb, cut into 2.5cm (1in) pieces, and add 900g (2lb) sugar. Leave in a bowl overnight. The following day, sterilise some clip-top glass preserving jars (Milton sterilising fluid is quick and easy) while boiling the rhubarb and sugar for 15 minutes in a pan with the juice of two lemons. Pour the jam into the jars. A little taste of ginger is an optional extra.