Gardening: Stick with it

MATCH STICKS: Rhubarb crowns are best planted in the spring or autumn.
MATCH STICKS: Rhubarb crowns are best planted in the spring or autumn.
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Rhubarb goes with Yorkshire better than custard. David Overend has tips on how to grow yours.

Most people are happy to have one patch of rhubarb growing in their gardens, providing plenty of succulent fruit in spring and into early summer.

Over at Nostell Priory, however, there are 19 varieties making their mark and taking up a lot of space in the estate’s walled garden. Just think what you could do with all those sticks – puddings, jams, relishes; the word could be your rhubarb oyster.

Nostell, near Wakefield, has gone a bit over the top, but it’s all for a good cause – this is, after all, the heartland of rhubarb growing, and by maintaining so many forms of the plant, the National Trust is doing its bit for history and the future.

Rhubarb crowns are best planted in the spring or autumn while the soil is warm and moist, so the time is nearly right for starting you own rhubarb dynasty. Potted rhubarb plants can be planted out at any time of the year if the soil isn’t frozen, waterlogged or too dry.

Choose the best spot in the garden where your rhubarb can grow for years without being disturbed. Prepare the planting hole by digging in plenty of well-rotted manure or other organic matter and then set the crown(s) just below the soil level. Give them plenty of space because a healthy, happy plant can stretch its mighty leaves several feet in all directions

Next spring, pick off the rhubarb flowers as they appear. You want the plant’s energy to go into the edible stems instead of flowering and setting seed. Rhubarb plants will also appreciate a feed of general purpose fertiliser in spring.

In autumn, when the leaves die back, cut back the old rhubarb stalks to leave the buds exposed to cold winter weather. Apply a mulch of well-rotted manure around the crown of the plant to help conserve moisture, deter weeds and provide food for the following growing season.

It pays to lift and split established rhubarb plants every four or five years. Divide roots and replant them, ensuring that each piece has a healthy bud that will become the growth point for next year’s new shoots.

With newly-planted rhubarb, it’s best not to pick stems the first year. From the second year, stems are best harvested from April to June. Then leave the plant to build up its strength for next year.

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