Nanny-food? No way

Sat, Nov 10, 2012, 00:00

GROWTart and sweet in equal measure, rhubarb is one of the best crops to have in your garden, so plant it now

A s the daughter of a woman who loves cooking just as much as she loves gardening, I grew up surrounded by a colourful jumble of well-thumbed cookery books (the tastier the recipe, the more stained the pages), amongst which were several volumes by the great British food writer Jane Grigson.

Whether extolling the pleasures of yellow courgette flowers dipped in batter and fried until golden, or the beauty of ripe quinces that looked “like magic apples, gold and dazzling against the blue sky”, Grigson’s wonderful books would make anyone want to grow at least some of their own food.

That said, even the greatest food writers have their occasional blind spots. In Grigson’s case, it’s rhubarb, a fruit she admits to intensely disliking and which she half-jokingly dismisses as “Nanny-food. Governess-food. School-meal food . . .”

I love rhubarb, however, with a passion that dates back to early childhood and the chance discovery of the joys of homemade rhubarb lemonade – a delectable drink with the prettiest shell-pink colour, and tart and sweet in equal measure. As for growing the stuff, I bought my first plants almost a decade ago when I found two unnamed but thriving orphans in a weedy corner of a soon-to-close nursery. Taking them home, I planted them into a pocket of deep, fertile soil in a sunny corner of the garden, where they thrived for many years.

But this spring was different. While the plants received their annual thick mulch of horse manure as usual, the crimson stems that pushed their way above ground were thinner, shorter and fewer in number, their leaves soon turning yellow and mottled. It may have been a simple case of overcrowding, very typical of rhubarb plants that have been in the same spot for too long. In which case, now is a good time to dig up the crowns and divide the plants’ thick, fleshy roots with a sharp spade (leave at least two buds) before replanting.

But given the discoloured leaves, I suspect a virus, not unusual in old rhubarb plants. If I’m right, then division won’t resolve the problem but prolong it, with offsets carrying the infection from the mother stock. So, after gloomily considering the prospect of a couple of rhubarb-less years, I have reluctantly decided to dig up my old plants and replace them with clean, disease-free stock sourced from a reputable garden centre.

Rather like potatoes, rhubarb varieties are loosely divided into three categories – first early, second early and maincrop (or early, mid-season and late season) – which correspond to the time at which the particular variety begins to be productive.

Pick one plant from each category (three rhubarb plants is easily enough for any household) and you should have a steady crop of rhubarb from mid-spring until mid-July. If youd like to extend the season even further, then consider growing the worlds very first autumn-cropping rhubarb, a new variety called Livingstone. As to other which varieties to select, there are dozens in cultivation, some of which are much tastier and more vigorous than others.

I’ve plumped for those which hold the coveted Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit (AGM), given only to those plants which are considered reasonably resistant to pest and diseases, stable, of good constitution, readily available to buy in a nursery or garden centre and, most importantly, “excellent for ordinary use in appropriate conditions”.

My first choice is ‘Timperley Early’, a robust, thick-stemmed, productive variety that’s been in cultivation since the 1920s and which should start producing its harvest of scarlet stems by March/April, earlier again if forced. Of the second-earlies, I’ve chosen a compact variety known as ‘Hawke’s Champagne’, first introduced in the early Victorian era and still highly prized for its sweetness.

Last but certainly not least is the maincrop variety known as ‘Fulton’s Strawberry Surprise’, voted tastiest of all the rhubarbs trialled by the RHS at Wisley in 2003.

If all goes well, within a few years I should have an ample harvest, perhaps even enough to make some rhubarb wine, a more grown-up version of my favourite childhood tipple. Even the esteemed Grigson couldn’t call that “nanny-food”.

Planting rhubarbIdeally plant in November/December into a very fertile, well-drained (but not dry) soil, and in a sunny, weed-free spot far away from the competing root-systems of tress/shrubs/hedges. Enrich soil with garden compost/manure before planting. Bury plants so that the dormant buds are just above (heavy soils) or just below (lighter soils) ground level. Allow at least three feet between plants. Water plants in dry spells (summer), protect against slugs and manure annually (winter/spring).

TipCompact varieties can be grown in large tubs if kept well fed/watered.

DIARY DATE: November 21st:Floral Art Group demonstration by Isobel Morris, Coming Home for Christmas, 8pm at Wesley House, Leeson Park, Dublin 6. €10 entrance. See rhsi.iefor details

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