This photo has nothing to do with rhubarb. My neighbor’s magnolia blossoms were dramatic a few days ago, and I shot this photo looking west across the fields in front of our houses. Magnolia blossoms are among my favorites, and I wanted to dress up this blog post… so please enjoy.
It seems as though every article I post these days is about how wet is my small kitchen garden. This one has to do with how wet is my rhubarb. Variety is the spice of life!
My History with Rhubarb
My dad managed about five rhubarb plants in a back corner of our yard. I ate rhubarb only as sauce; can’t remember my mom ever preparing it another way. When finally I had space for my own kitchen garden, I bought several rhubarb plants from a local nursery and planted a tidy row near my planting bed.
For a few years, I had a modest rhubarb harvest each spring, but rarely enough for more than a pot or two of sauce—and maybe some rhubarb pies. Then we had rain.
I joked often that spring that if you weren’t playing golf in the rain, you weren’t playing golf. We had enough dry days to plant a vegetable garden, but I discovered that the rhubarb patch was in a low spot; there was standing water around the plants through much of the spring and by autumn there was no sign at all of rhubarb.
In the Falkland Island war, trench foot disabled more of Great Britain’s troops than combat injuries did. Trench foot arises when your feet are cold and wet for days at a time. That’s what’s happening to my rhubarb. By April 28, a few of the rhubarb plants in my main bed had barely produced leaves; trench foot is holding them back and may eventually kill them.
When rhubarb failed to emerge in the spring, I bought new plants and committed a sliver of my main planting bed to perennials; a dramatic departure as it meant having less room for the annual vegetables. Still, the planting bed sits a few inches above its surrounds, so I expected the rhubarb to be safe in particularly wet years.
This Spring is not “Particularly Wet;” it’s Wetter
Despite the drier planting bed, I’ve had only one really healthy plant for the past many years. Other plants have struggled during wet seasons and so have never grown hearty and productive. Finally, last year I set six rhubarb plants in a new area that doesn’t hold water the way my main planting bed seems to.
Mind you, my main planting bed is usually very moist in early spring, but I’ve always been able to till in March and April. Except for this year. My perennials have been in standing water at least one day for each day they’ve been dry. Some sections of the planting bed have had puddles continuously for 20 or more days.
A full 13 days before I photographed the rhubarb with trench foot (that’s the previous photo), the residential rhubarb inspector acknowledged that plants in my new rhubarb patch (in this photo) are in great shape. Today, despite the rain, these plants are nearly ready for a first harvest. The drainage around my new rhubarb patch is a bit better than the drainage in my main planting bed.
I can’t work the soil with so much moisture in it. Worse: the rhubarb is very unhappy. Of the six plants within my garden fence, I’m likely to lose two or three. That will leave me with a respectable nine plants which is double what I’ve ever had.
Remediation for my Small Kitchen Garden
The lesson, I suppose, is that every season brings its own challenges. Will it ever be wet like this again? This year’s frustration motivates me: I’ll probably take steps to reduce the agony caused by excessive spring rains.
My most obvious move is to add soil to my planting bed. The retaining wall now stands at least 4 inches above the soil so I can easily top up the bed. This will provide a buffer above spring-soaked soil in wet years, and I’ll be able to plant even when rains saturate the surrounding yard.
Actually, I won’t add soil. If I add anything it will be a mixture of sand, charcoal, and compost or mushroom soil. Then, I’ll till aggressively to mix the new stuff in with the underlying clay-heavy soil. After that, I’ll return to my minimal-disturbance approach to planting… and it’ll take way more rain than we’re having this year to keep me from planting spring vegetables