Often what we do here at 'Near River' is very similar to what our grandparents did, following organic principles with composts, teas and the like, and increasingly, this is coming up in advice from Internet discussion groups, at field days and through various publications.
And I must confess that my green thumb can be tracked back to my grandfather, a consummate gardener and grower of great vegetables.
So it is with some reverence and joy that we planted our rhubarb bed out on the weekend, as while Pa grew the vegetables, Nana made a great rhubarb crumble, and always loved eating it too.
Rhubarb (Rheum x hybridum) is one of the most productive and easy to grow perennial food plants. It will tolerate total neglect, however any horticultural kindness by way of well rotted manure and moisture through the growing season will be repaid abundantly.
As with most perennial crops, good soil preparation is essential, and well rotted manure, compost and blood and bone can be dug in with abandon. In areas with acidic soil, the addition of lime would also prove beneficial.
While raising rhubarb seedlings at home is not a difficult matter, and is the most economical way to establish a bed, the planting of roots ensures larger plants will be obtained in less time. These are usually available for purchase through winter and early spring.
Winter is the best time to plant out rhubarb crowns, making sure that the root system is well spread out, with the crown just below the soil surface. Keep the bed well watered and add a good cover of mulch which will keep the moisture level high, and suppress weed growth from around the plants.
During the first year after planting it is advisable to resist the temptation and avoid harvesting all the stalks - this will allow the young plants to strengthen leading to increased yields in coming years. In the second year, pull the stems, don't cut them, ensuring that at least four stems are left on the plant. Rhubarb is it's tastiest when it's been harvested just when the huge leaf is fully expanded. Note that the leaves are extremely poisonous, containing high levels of oxalic acid, and no part of them should be eaten. That said, they can be used in a spray to rid woolly aphids from apple trees.
Each year in late autumn or winter, apply a liberal dressing of compost or manure to the rhubarb bed, and then in early spring, surround the crowns with a mulch of compost or manure. About every four or five years the roots can be lifted, separated, and then reset in the same ground. Alternatively, it may be more convenient to cut off the outer roots with a spade without disturbing the part to be left in the ground. If this is done in late autumn, these outer roots can then be reset.
Rhubarb is untroubled by serious insect pests, however may be susceptible to downy mildew and leaf spot particularly during warm wet periods.
Both the generic and common names for rhubarb are derived from the Greek name rha, and for hundreds of years rhubarb has had a reputation as a purgative. A multitude of medicinal uses abound, including a preparation of the root to strengthen nails, or distilled water of rhubarb used as a gargle for sore throats. Shakespeare's Macbeth refers to it when he speaks to his doctor about the English army, saying:
What rhubarb, senna or what purgative drug
Would scour these English hence?
Hear'st thou of them?
cooking 'em and eating 'em!
The Australian Fruit & Vegetable Garden by Clive Blazey and Jane Varkulevicius
The Illustrated Plant Lore by Josephine Addison