There has been a great wailing and gnashing of teeth in our house this week, and all because of Parsley Bartowich or, rather, its absence. It's a new root crop which I spied in the catalogue of a seed company which shall remain nameless because I am so upset by them. You see, by the time I went to order the Parsley Bartowich, it was sold out and, what's more, wouldn't be available until next season. I cried when I heard. I stamped my feet and did all those things that spoiled children do when they cannot have their own way, and then, while I was misbehaving is such an abominable fashion, and looking out the window in the direction of the bed I had prepared for this exciting new seed, my eyes came to rest on a dear friend, one whom I have known for many years but, I am ashamed to say, had rather taken for granted.
Rhubarb has been with me since childhood. A farm girl, it was a mainstay in the shearing season when it was stewed and made into puddings or served with porridge and cream as a robust breakfast before the day's work began. As I grew older and hauled bunches of it back to my student flat, it fed the great unwashed. As a cash-strapped school mum required to produce fund-raising jams or to whip up roasting dishes of crumble at a moment's notice for community catering requirements, it was my best friend. And, around our table, it has fed a good many WWOOFers after a hard slog in the garden. A few years ago, I smiled to myself when rhubarb took a turn in the limelight and was to be found on the menu of top Auckland restaurants, and when I discovered fields of it growing in Brittany, in the north of France, I was astonished to realise how seriously the Continentals took this Cinderella vegetable.
We all crave novelty, so I'm not beating myself up too much over the decline I fell into after the Parsley Bartowich episode, but the fact is that old friends such as rhubarb enjoy a solid reputation for good reason. This pretty vegetable (it is a vegetable rather than a fruit) is so forgiving, surviving in semi shade if it absolutely has to, but producing fabulous thick stems when situated in a sunny spot. Providing it is given a well drained bed (grow it on a mound if necessary) it will produce from mid spring well into the autumn, though it pays not to pick too many stems early on in the season as it is always best if the crown (the section of the plant from which the edible part grows) is left with three or four stalks. Try to hold back from picking stalks in the plant's first year of growth, too.
Rhubarb does well in an acid soil so don't add lime to the bed. And it likes breathing space so, if establishing this vegetable for the first time, set crowns out about a metre apart. When they have been growing for 5 or 6 years, divide them by digging up and slicing through the crowns, replanting those sections you want to keep.
Rhubarb will grow with very little attention but to grow well it requires lots of compost and animal manure. In late autumn, once the leaves die back , I absolutely pile on the rotted organic material that I have on hand, then mulch heavily around the plants to keep them snug and weed free through the unproductive months. Come spring, if the season is slow to get started, I cover the plants with plastic to spur on growth. This is in the deep south, of course, but further north it is very likely that growth will continue in a limited fashion throughout the year.
I grow two types of rhubarb, an "acid-free" striking red-stalked variety which is so pretty that it would happily fit into a perennial flower bed. To say it is acid-free is an exaggeration but it is certainly less tart than the other thicker stemmed variety I have in my garden which has a green stalk with a faint red blush to it. I'm sure these two varieties have botanical names but because, as is usually the case with rhubarb, the crowns were given to me by a gardening friend, I'm delighted to say that I don't know for certainty what is what. If you are heading for a garden centre, "acid-free" will get you what you are looking for and if you ask for Victoria, you'll receive the plant that is deciduous in winter. My reading suggests that Glaskins Perpetual is the evergreen variety.
Happily, there is almost nothing in the disease line that will harm rhubarb though there are several small difficulties that you should be aware of. Neglected, as it so often is, or in early spring, rhubarb is likely to send up seedheads. Snip them off unless you want the plant's strength to go into seed production rather than fruit. Watch out for slugs and snails as the crowns offer these creatures perfect hiding places. If you have possums about the property, it is essential to net the plants as these bothersome animals appear oblivious the fact that rhubarb leaves are poisonous. In a cold spring they will gnaw new growth down to an unsightly stump.
Dear rhubarb, how can I have taken you for granted for so long? I don't care if you are fashionable or despised, loved or loathed, you are a faithful and dependable friend and I love your wide glossy leaves waving in the gentle breeze or glistening from a shower of spring rain. I would never be without you but despite all that you have been to me, I still desperately want that Parsley Bartowich seed so, kind readers, if you know of anyone who has, even a pinch, to spare, do let me know....!"