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Posts Tagged ‘plant rhubarb’

Sad About Rhubarb Plants

Despite the nearly nonstop rain in March, By April 4 of 2011, my newest rhubarb patch was leading the way for my kitchen garden perennials. Young leaves were popping on every plant I’d set in the previous season and there was a lot of promise for a fine harvest.

My rhubarb plants are dead. All of them. Rhubarb plants in my small kitchen garden are a sixteen-year story if you count only the years since I planted my first ones. Those failed to thrive and eventually drowned during a wet season.

I learned from my drowned rhubarb and abandoned the low ground that tends to collect water during heavy rains. I committed one end of my rather small raised bed vegetable garden to perennials: rhubarb, asparagus, herbs, and (please don’t hate me) hollyhocks and lupines.

Never Enough Rhubarb

The slightly higher ground of the raised garden bed was the trick: for many years my rhubarb plants thrived. Still, there was never enough. From four plants, I’d get a modest harvest and make, perhaps, two pies and one pot of rhubarb sauce. My family doesn’t care for rhubarb, so I lacked motivation to create a larger bed. Then I met an aging farmer.

Rain continued into April of 2011, so that by April 19th there was standing water in much of my raised bed vegetable garden. My longest-established rhubarb plants were clearly stunted from having their roots submerged nearly continuously for more than a month.

In 2009, I made friends with a man in my neighborhood who was giving up on vegetable gardening. He had quite a nice rhubarb patch and told me he planned to remove it. I offered to do the work in exchange for the rhubarb plants and we agreed I’d return to excavate in the spring of 2010. I summarized the rhubarb project in a post titled Small Kitchen Garden Rhubarb Project. Happily, the project resulted in a robust rhubarb patch and a bonus herb planting bed that I finished in the fall of 2010.

And Then the Rains Came

Rain started in March of 2011 and continued until June. We had six rainless weeks during which my vegetable and fruit plants acted as though all was well. Then it rained. It rained some more, and it rained even more.

We had six rainless back-to-back weeks in 2011, and annuals and perennials alike put on terrific growth. While this was a photo of my artichoke plants on August 31, it clearly shows a hedge of happy-looking rhubarb—that’s the rhubarb I’d transplanted from a friend’s yard in 2010. An aside: I won’t plant artichokes in Central Pennsylvania again until human-made greenhouse gasses move us into hardiness zone 9. Extrapolating from the latest hardiness zone maps, that will happen before I turn 70.

The “high ground” in my raised garden bed proved lower than I’d thought, and it was clear the rhubarb there had little chance of surviving. I had higher hopes for the new rhubarb plants as the area of the yard where I’d set them had never held moisture in heavy rains.

Things looked good; I harvested lightly, made a few pies, and cooked a pot of sauce. 2012 would be the first year since starting my own kitchen garden that I’d have more rhubarb than I could possibly use.

Perennials Have Popped, but Not the Rhubarb Plants

Apparently, despite the favorable growth in 2011, my rhubarb plants suffered. I suspect that as they faded in late summer, they weren’t progressing through the natural seasonal decline of their foliage and stalks. Rather, in all the moisture, they were rotting away. This spring, even the asparagus in my raised planting bed (where rhubarb died early last year) has sprouted and looks healthy. The rhubarb, however, is absent. I’m not entirely surprised: I was suspicious last fall that the plants were hurting, but I didn’t expect them to fail… at least not ALL of them.

Only eight days after I shot the photo of artichoke plants and robust rhubarb, many streets and buildings in Lewisburg Pennsylvania were unusually wet… as was my garden. Given the lack of rhubarb sprouts this spring, I realize now that the autumn wilt of my rhubarb patch had more to do with saturated soil than it did with the plants’ transition into dormancy.

To start yet another rhubarb patch with plants from a nursery would cost $30 to $50. However, I found rhubarb at a local department store; 2 roots per bag at $3 per bag. I wasn’t shopping for rhubarb, and I’m suspicious of these pathetic-looking roots, but I took the chance and bought three packs… which turned out to hold 7 budding tubers.

Rhubarb Project Number Four

So, I face my fourth attempt to establish a rhubarb patch in my small kitchen garden. This time, I’m planting on high ground close to the house. Everything drains away from the house, so this location seems unlikely to suffer if we have another biblical rain event like that of 2011. But I’m hedging my bets: I’m building a mound on the high ground, raising the soil six or more inches above the surrounding earth.

Which leads to the “takeaway” from this little story: when you start a rhubarb bed, find a high place in your yard and make sure the roots of your rhubarb plants will never sit in saturated soil. Rhubarb has the distinction of being the least wet-tolerant plant I’ve grown in my small kitchen garden.

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Small Kitchen Garden Rhubarb Project

Your Small Kitchen Garden catches up with a series of posts about what went on in the garden this season while the kitchen gardener (Daniel) was busy writing his book Yes, You Can! And Freeze and Dry it, Too.

When you need to resort to a mattock to dig a garden bed, either you missed the rainy season, or you’re dealing with less-then-ideal soil.

My first outdoor project this past growing season was to expand my small kitchen garden. Here’s how that went down:

New Rhubarb for my Small Kitchen Garden

In 2009 I met a man who had five rhubarb plants in his garden but he’d lost interest in them. He told me his wife had used the rhubarb to make great baked goods, but since she died he simply didn’t use it. His plan, he said, was to dig up the plants and get rid of them.

On that day in 2009, I asked this man if he’d like me to dig up his rhubarb in exchange for the plants. He agreed, and I told him I’d be in touch in the spring after the ground thawed. In March, I lined the back of the minivan with cardboard, set in a shovel and a garden fork, and visited my new gardening friend.

The rhubarb plants marking the western border of the planting bed were large and healthy. I worked the garden fork into the soil, defining a 24-inch circle around each plant. Fortunately, my friend’s garden soil is full of humus, and it loosened easily. Unfortunately, digging five mature rhubarb plants is a lot of work.

A large cardboard box flattened in the back of Ye Olde Minivan was adequate to keep soil off the van’s carpet—but only because the van is 17 years old. Five rhubarb plants broke apart into many viable roots. Unfortunately, I had no planting bed prepared, so I heeled in the rhubarb roots to keep them from drying out. Heeled in? It means to cover the roots with soil without actually planting the plants. I put mine under cardboard and covered the cardboard with soil. The cardboard dried out every day, so I soaked it as often.

I dug deeply beneath the roots of the first plant to remove the entire root ball intact. I could barely haul this across the lawn and lift it into the back of the van. So, I was less surgical with the remaining plants. I dug closer to the roots and broke them apart as I levered them out of the soil.

In about 90 minutes, I’d stacked way too many rhubarb plants in the minivan, and had raked out the soil to leave a fresh planting area where my gardening friend planned to start ornamental Japanese red maples.

The Garden Cart Before the Horse

You’d think that by the time a serious gardener has a cargo load of rhubarb plants, he or she would have a planting bed waiting to receive them. Not this kitchen gardener. Nope. I hadn’t yet decided where I’d plant the rhubarb, much less prepared a planting bed.

So… I strategized with my wife (who has no love for rhubarb), and we agreed I’d extend an existing ornamental bed around a corner and plant the rhubarb there. It looked great on paper… but I hated that I couldn’t burn in a planting bed (as I explained in a post titled Your New Home Kitchen Garden Planting Bed); I needed to plant within a week or two, so I’d be cutting sod and conditioning soil before I could set the rhubarb in the ground.

This back corner of our house gets morning and afternoon sun and, while ornamental planting beds run all the way around the house, this 16 foot section of wall perches on lawn. Left of the corner is an established ornamental bed. To turn the corner with my new rhubarb bed, I measured out a right angle, then used string anchored against the corner of the house to sweep an arc. I cut sod along the curved border and quickly discovered this was a miserable place to dig a planting bed. Realizing it would take hours to excavate and condition the soil here, I decided to put the rhubarb elsewhere.

Slow-mo Planting Bed

When I removed the sod from my new planting bed, I discovered a sad truth: Calling the stuff under the sod “soil” was charitable; this would be a huge project. In fact, to dig, I needed to break up the clay and gravel with a mattock before I could shovel it out of the ground.

So, to keep the rhubarb fresh while I pounded a new planting bed into existence, I “heeled in” the roots of the plants. Then I gave up.

Rhubarb Patch Plan Two

It became clear that my rhubarb plants were suffering, and it would be weeks before the new bed was ready. In desperation, I came up with a new concept: I would extend my small kitchen garden annex and plant rhubarb along its southern edge.

The annex started life about 17 years ago as a sandbox for my kids. Not surprisingly, my kids haven’t played in it in years. So, last year, I decided to go archeologist and see what toys were popular in sandboxes in the late 90s and early 00s: I converted the sandbox into a planting bed.

I cut two feet of sod along the south edge of the planting bed I’d created last year from my kids’ sandbox. I dug five holes and set roots in each of them. Then I extended the planting bed two feet to the east and added one more plant. The south border of this planting bed is now home to six rhubarb plants. In the photo on the left, last autumn’s weeds still cover the bed. In the photo on the right, I’ve finished planting the rhubarb and I’ve weeded and raked the expanded bed. The area around the planting bed has terrific soil, perhaps because the old septic field runs under it. The new rhubarb plants grew amazingly well this summer.

The soil in that part of the yard is loose and rich. Coincidentally, there used to be a septic field in that area. I was able to remove sod and excavate holes in a matter of hours. Then I added compost, set the healthiest-looking rhubarb roots, and filled in around them with soil.

There were so many rhubarb roots left over that I stuck some in my main planting bed and potted up the rest to give to friends. The original six plants provided starters for about 14 new plants. My new rhubarb patch was so prolific, I was very tempted to harvest from it… but best practices say not to harvest from plants in the year you set them out.

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