Gardening: Rhubarb expert says scattering unusual manure for delicious plants

An early BBC QI show, which I rewatched the other day, asked panelists if they knew about the Rhubarb Triangle, which prompted me to write this article. These are, of course, the perfect growing conditions within a few square miles from Morley to Wakefield to Rothwell. But if you live outside of these sacred rhubarb growing places, how can you grow perfect rhubarb?

New developments in rhubarb breeding have resulted in sweeter stalks and earlier harvests. Indeed, “Pink Blossom” can be harvested from the end of February to the end of July.

All rhubarbs can be grown in full sun or partial shade. The soil should be moist but well drained. If you have heavy or light sandy clay soils, add homemade compost and well-rotted manure.

Container grown rhubarb can be planted any time of the year, such as now, while bare root crowns are planted in winter. In each case, the crown should be 2.5 cm below the soil surface.

If you are growing more than one variety, leave space between each plant as rhubarb likes to grow. Leave a space of 80 cm.

Like strawberries, rhubarb can be split/divided in fall or early spring to keep the plant healthy and well grown, replanting healthy divisions and discarding any parts of the crown that no longer produce healthy stems .

READ MORE: How to grow big, delicious tomatoes: ‘The secret is when you feed them’

Rhubarb is a hungry plant, so dress it with compost or well-rotted manure in the spring to a depth of 7.5 cm. This will help maintain moisture levels and reduce weed competition, but gardeners should ensure emerging buds are clear of mulch.

Every two months from now until fall, you can scatter chicken manure pellets around the plant and gently introduce them or apply a general liquid fertilizer.

Rhubarb is grown for the long term. All newly planted crowns should be allowed to grow for one year without picking any of the stems, then the second year only picking 3-5 stems.

The main season is from May to August, but the earlier you pick them, the sweeter the stems. Look at the plant.

You want to select stems with good colors and leaves that have started to fully unfurl. The stems should be between 15 and 40 cm long.

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Never cut the stems, because the remaining part of the stem will die back.

Firmly but gently grasp the rod as close to crown/ground level as possible, then twist the rod as you pull it. This allows the stem to separate from the plant and signals the crown to sprout a new stem.

If the stem does not come off immediately, try tilting the stem the other way, then twist and pull. Ideally, you only want to harvest a third of the plant in one season.

Never eat the leaves as they are high in oxalic acid, which is toxic to humans.

It can cause burns, nausea, severe gastroenteritis, vomiting and even convulsions.

Stop picking the stems during the summer to allow the plant to build up reserves for the following year. You can, of course, force the rhubarb to grow and be harvested earlier. Begin forcing crowns in winter by placing a bucket, large pot, or clay rhubarb forcer over the entire crown.

The goal is to block out all light. You can even wrap straw or reuse and attach bubble wrap to insulate the outside of the bucket, pot or strainer. Limiting light forces the plant to grow in search of it.

The soft, tender stalks will be large enough (20-30cm long) to harvest in seven to eight weeks. Tops that have been forced should not be harvested the following summer or year.

Great varieties to try are ‘Grandad’s Favourite’ which has the RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM), ‘Hawke’s Champagne’ AGM and ‘Raspberry Red’ AGM.

I love the rhubarb crumble, with an extra oatmeal topping. Pair it with cream, custard or ice cream for, in my opinion, the perfect dessert. Young fresh stalks are also delicious with pork chops, as an apricot coating on grilled chicken, or as a dressing on a summer salad.

Enjoy this wonderful vegetable in savory dishes and sweet desserts.

It is rich in antioxidants, especially anthocyanins (which give it its red color) and proanthocyanidins, is high in fiber and can help lower blood cholesterol levels.

It also has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and anticancer properties, which is why it has been used so much for medicinal purposes. But whichever way you enjoy it, savor its sweet and sour taste and savor its seasonality.

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