• Maureen Little

Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb!

Updated: Mar 30, 2020

Rhubarb’s a bit like marmite – you either love it or hate it. I love it – especially rhubarb crumble with proper custard.

I think it used to be grown and eaten more widely, mainly because it bridged the gap between the last of the stored apples and the first fruits of summer, long before we could pop to the supermarket and buy out-of-our-season- fruit flown in from the other side of the world.

Rhubarb has been grown in the so-called ‘Rhubarb Triangle’ in Yorkshire which comprises the area between Bradford, Wakefield and Leeds for many years – and still is. This rhubarb is tender and has a much more delicate flavour than outdoor-grown rhubarb. You can imitate this practice by putting some rhubarb forcing pots over the crowns (which have already been covered with a layer of straw or bracken) in December or January.

When the stems reach the top of the container, they are ready for harvesting: this should be some two to three weeks earlier than you normally would.

When you harvest the stems - forced or not - you must pull them away from the plant rather than cutting them - this way there will be no stump left behind to rot. Also, first, don’t harvest anything during the first year so that the plant can establish and build up some strength; and second, when you do get to harvest some, always leave about half the stems so the plant continues to grow.

If you do want to grow some rhubarb you can buy dormant crowns which should be planted between autumn and spring. Get the ground ready digging in two bucketsful per square metre of well-rotted manure, then spread out the roots and place the plant so the tip of the crown is just visible above the soil. If you buy pot-grown rhubarb, they can be planted at any time.

As with any other newly-planted plant, however, make sure you water it sufficiently during the first season so that it becomes established as quickly as possible without being put under too much stress. Whether you’re planting crowns or pot-grown rhubarb, space the plants 75-90cm apart.

Once you’ve planted your rhubarb, give it a good mulch of composted manure - but don’t bury the crown as it will rot – and keep the ground free of weeds. A dose of general purpose fertiliser (about 100g per square metre) in spring will keep it happy during the growing season.

In autumn, when the top growth dies back, remove the dead leaves to expose the crown to frost - this is necessary to help break the dormancy and ensure a good crop the following year.

There are a number of varieties to choose from but my allotment friends tell me that these are the best: ‘Early Champagne’, ‘Hawkes Champagne’, ‘Stockbridge Arrow’, and ‘Victoria’. I had always grown ‘Timperley Early’ but apparently you get better results with ‘Stockbridge Arrow’, a newer variety, bred in Yorkshire.

One point to remember is that you should not let your rhubarb plant produce flowers. If you do see a flower erupting, pull it out otherwise all the plant’s energy will be directed into the flowering stem rather than the leafing stems which are the ones you want to harvest.