Nanny-food? No way
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.