Stewed, jam, tart, pudding – in whatever guise rhubarb is served up it is a highly popular addition to the table’s dainties. The stems (which are the only edible portion of the plant) come fat and plentifully from any clump correctly tended. It makes massive roots which need to go down deeply; it needs manure or decayed vegetable matter to keep it going, and plenty of moisture must be supplied to the growing plants during dry spring and summer periods.Varieties include The Sutton, for the main crop; Goliath, Reading Ruby, Champagne, Royal Albert, all providing pullings in advance of the main crop; Victoria, which comes in late and provides enormous sticks; Perpetual, which can be pulled in the same year as the seed is sown.
Roots, consisting of either one or two crowns (or buds), areplanted 3 ft. apart. Raising from seed is only for those who can wait three years before tasting the crop, with the exception of the variety Perpetual; a small packet of this variety will give considerably more plants than are likely to be required. The planting of roots is the normal procedure in rhubarb growing.
Ready for Use. Roots must be allowed one full season in the ground before any sticks are pulled. The ordinary spring and summer supply is from April to July. Outdoor clumps covered in January with inverted tubs or boxes give sticks fit for use two or three weeks in advance of the ordinary supply; with manure to cover the tubs or boxes, the supply is still earlier. Clumps lifted from the open in winter and forced in heat provide pullings of succulent sticks in about six weeks.
Rhubarb should be located handy to a water supply and where it can remain for years. It is a permanent, stand-still tenant. It can be planted between fruit trees provided these do not cast too much shade and the ground is dug at least 2 ft. deep and enriched before the roots go in. It is better off in the open than in constant shade.
Use of the spade or fork, and animal or hop manure, or rotted greenstuff, is amply repaid in future produce. Either of these rich materials should be mixed in very generously with the soil below the top foot; and a handful of bone-meal worked into the top soil around the root when planting will be well worth the little it will cost.
Soil that is heavy and wet can be brought to the right condition for rhubarb by mixing in throughout a depth of 2 ft. plenty of grit, sand, sifted fire ashes or wood ash. Soil light in nature and quick to dry out demands one of the rich materials (or a mixture of these) previously mentioned, in specially generous measure; they must serve the plant for years, so must be given in abundance.
Ground should be prepared well in advance, to give it plenty of time to settle down to the necessary firmness.
When and How to Plant.
October and February are the best periods to get the roots in; February is preferable if the ground is heavy. A hole more than large enough to take the root should be made, the depth being such that when the hole is filled in the top of the fat, squat bud (there may be two, or only one, to each root) is covered with 2 in. of soil. Planting holes should be 3 ft. apart each way.
When and How to Sow.
Seed is sown in March, very thinly, in a drill 1 in. deep, and seedlings thinned out so that by the end of summer they stand about 9 in. apart. The following February they are lifted and replanted where they are to remain, 3 ft. apart. Growth at first is slow, and if they are to make really profitable clumps no sticks should be pulled until the plants are three years old. Exception to that is made in the case of the variety Perpetual, which gives sticks fit for use in six months; seed of this can be sown outdoors in March, but stronger and earlier plants are obtained by sowing them in a shallow box, in a sunny frame or greenhouse, the seedlings being set out in rich ground in May, 3 ft. apart.
Watering and Feeding.
Rhubarb will rub along, in a mediocre way, without any watering or feeding. But the difference in size and number of stems when the ground is soaked occasionally in rainless weather is remarkable. Weak liquid manure works wonders during the growing season.
Pulling the Sticks.
First-year roots should be given a whole summer in which to become established, without a stem being taken. The temptation to ignore this rule is great, but for the sake of subsequent years it should be resisted.
Stems can be pulled when they attain useful size. It is wasteful to take them too young. Best stage at which to pull them is when the leaf is right open and flattened out. It is advisable to cease pulling at the end of July, each clump then being left with three or four stems to build up the plant’s strength for next season.
Damage can be done by careless gathering. Eest method is to grasp the stem low down, press it outward from the base, then twist it to left or right. It comes cleanly away then from the basal bud.
Rhubarb in Flower.
The flowering stem of rhubarb is a startlingly massive affair, produced in summer, 4 ft. or 5 ft. high and crowned with creamy bloom. This is definitely wasted growth, so far as the home food producer is concerned, and weakening to the plant. The stem should be removed directly it is noticed, before it has reached more than a few inches in height. If seed is required, it is more profitable to buy a small packet than allow a strong clump to waste its substance in this manner.
The encouragement to produce early stems which a strong clump of rhubarb receives from a covering of some sort in January is considerable. A tub, barrel, or box not less than about 2 ft. deep up-ended over the clump is all that is needed to secure sticks two or three weeks earlier than the normal date, which is advanced at least another fortnight if manure, or a mixture of manure and dead leaves, can be mounded over the covering.
Where this heating material is used, the tub, barrel or box should have a movable lid so that growth can be inspected and stems pulledwithout need for removing the covering. Out-of-season growth is brisker if the clumps are covered after a hard frost or two. Roots forced thus, should not be cropped too severely the following summer.
Clumps lifted from the open and forced in heat in a greenhouse are so weakened that they are not worth replanting, but where the facilities exist a dish of rhubarb can be enjoyed at Christmas by beginning the indoor forcing about the second week in November. The clumps should be not less than three years old, should be dug up with as much root as possible and placed under the greenhouse bench, close together, covered with soil so that only the tips of the buds are visible, the soil moistened with warmed water, and sacking or other material hung from the bench to exclude light. In a temperature of about 55 degrees growth quickly begins and in six weeks or so there are fine pink stems to pull.
The roots may be packed closely in a box, with soil to fill the spaces, and then placed under the greenhouse bench, instead of being on the floor with soil packed around and between them. The same result is achieved if the box is placed in a cupboard in a room where the temperature remains steady at about 55 degrees by night as well as by day. Always the soil must be kept reasonably moist. Roots respond more readily to forcing if the clumps after being dug up are left exposed on the ground for about a fortnight for frost to get at them; it is no use exposing them in wet weather.
Cure for Thin Sticks.
When stems begin to show sign of dwindling in size it is an indication that the clump is past its best. At the first hint of this – and it might not occur for years – the clump should be dug up, divided, and the strongest pieces replanted elsewhere, the new position to be dug and enriched well beforehand.
Time for this division and replanting is February. The old clump is got up, with all its roots, by digging deeply around it with the spade and then undermining; which is no five-minute job. Hoisted on to the surface, the clump has then to be separated into suitable pieces, each piece to come away with either one bud or two, obviously worn-out pieces to be discarded..
The mass is very woody, and it may be necessary to use a saw to do the cutting – from top to bottom of the clump. It is possible to do it with a sharp spade held vertically and jabbed down forcefully, but seldom is division achieved in that way without one or two good buds being sliced and ruined.
The divisions are dealt with then as individual plants, and if the pulling of stems from these can possibly be avoided the following year they will make strong clumps.
Preparing for Table.
Cut off leaf, and the base of the stem, and peel it from the bottom upwards if at all stringy. Then wash it, and cut into inch lengths for stewing, for making puddings, tarts, jam.