Posts Tagged ‘rhubarb’
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
The pear trees I planted in November of 2008 have brilliant color combinations in early spring. I might be happy if the tree always looked like this. Then again, I wouldn’t mind harvesting my first pears from them this season. The trees are still small, so I must be cautious: I’ll thin severely a week or two after the petals drop but I’ll watch for signs of stress. It may be prudent to give the trees one more season before burdening them with full-grown fruits.
My small kitchen garden has had a most miserable spring. Heck, because of all the rain, my small kitchen garden is a miserable spring! Water draining off the hill to the south has pooled in my planting bed making it impossible for me to do anything with it besides complain.
Fortunately, other parts of my yard drain more quickly than my planting bed does and for those areas, spring progresses. My fruit trees have already started to flower, and in a few days there will be blossoms on every branch. At the same time, my new rhubarb patch is doing well—that is, according to the residential rhubarb inspector who thoroughly examined the new growth despite inclement weather.
There’s not much you can do with fruit trees while they’re in bloom. This is the time to leave them alone so pollinators can work unhindered; I’m pretty sure I saw bees wearing SCUBA gear as they worked the peach flowers. Enjoy the colors and the aromas of your fruit tree blossoms, but don’t do maintenance until the petals drop. Then, it’s important to treat against pests or your produce could end up as bug food and insect baby incubators.
My old, extremely beat-up pear tree sports clusters of white blossoms. Considering the huge void in the tree’s trunk, it looks impressively hardy year-after-year. If half the flowers produce fruit, it will be a bountiful harvest.
The peach tree that came with our house fell over at least three years ago. The trunk suffered a “green twig fracture.” That is, it broke part way through, but a section of it held and bent like a hinge. That hinge of bent wood nourishes the entire tree, and the tree continues to produce fruit. There are plenty of blossoms on this challenged peach tree, so I’m hoping for a decent harvest to make jelly and pies.
The first apple blossom I could find among hundreds of ready-to-pop buds has some type of insect damage. I hope this doesn’t portend hard times to come. Stink bugs, I hear, can be hard on apples, and I live very near where the stink bug invasion began in the United States. I will be vigilant.
The residential rhubarb inspector examined my new rhubarb patch and seemed to approve. There’s soil, there are floppy leafy things, and there are stick-like stems. What’s not to like? I had to drag the rhubarb inspector away before she started chomping my plants.
Last year’s rhubarb project continues to look successful. Every plant in the new rhubarb bed has sprouted tiny wrinkly leaves. You’re supposed to harvest lightly in the year after planting. I may pretend that this is the second year after planting since I created the bed at the beginning of last season. I can say with authority: there will be pie.
March in central Pennsylvania is such a great time in my small kitchen garden because that’s when the earliest perennials push through the soil and have a look around. Oh, yeah? Not this year! Nope, we’re having a seriously late start to spring around here, and the early sprouts have been timid at best.
Despite the unseasonable cold and way more rain than my kitchen garden needs, I poked around two days ago to see what has sprung. The late early growth is tantalizing, but I’m not ready yet to start the annuals. I hope your kitchen gardens are farther along. Tell me: do you grow a particular fruit or vegetable that you anticipate above all others? I’d love to hear about it. Please let me know in a comment.
Remarkably similar in color to baby rhubarb leaves, tarragon emerges in my new herb bed. I started this bed last spring to receive rhubarb plants, but I realized it would take enormous energy to complete the bed. So, by late autumn I’d finished the bed and set herbs in it. Tarragon and thyme I’d started from seed last spring have wintered over nicely in the new bed. Just looking at these young sprouts makes plaque collect in my veins; I love to make béarnaise sauce and use it (instead of hollandaise) to smother eggs Benedict. More tarragon probably means more eggs Benedict. I’ll need a bigger belt.
Thyme is particularly hardy in these parts. This sprig, on a plant I started from seed last spring, has already produced abundant leaves despite the low temperatures. I expect to have several decent clumps of thyme within the next few years.
I don’t grow chives in my small kitchen garden; there’s no need. Wild onion is one of the most common “weeds” in this area. When the neighboring farmer mowed his hay field in past years, the air would smell of onions for several days! I created a new herb bed in late autumn last year, planted a few perennial herbs, and this spring there are several volunteer wild onions emerging in the bed. In some places, my lawn is more wild onion than it is grass.
The biggest mess in my new herb garden is a grouping of sage bushes that I removed from an old half barrel I’d planted, perhaps, ten years ago. The barrel stands empty awaiting a new assignment while the sage plants remain dormant. As the days warm (they will warm, right?), I expect plenty of new growth on these usually hardy plants. When I can easily see which sticks are alive, I’ll snap off the deadwood and save it to use in my smoker. Ribs, chicken, brisket, sausage… they all taste delightful when you smoke them with sage wood. Yes, that’s a downspout behind the plants; I may need to add an extender that carries rainwater across the bed so heavy storms won’t carve a hole in the herb garden.
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.
Two distinct flavors cook together into a sweet, tart, sticky filling for a classic, uniquely American dessert: strawberry-rhubarb pie. The three vidoes in this post explain how you can make your own.
In hardiness zone 5, rhubarb is among the first spring crops a small kitchen garden might produce. With that crop alone, you can make curiously sweet and tart pies that would please most diners. However, around mid June, the first real fruit crop of a kitchen garden ripens: strawberries. It’s then that you can create the uniquely American strawberry-rhubarb pie.
The idea of mixing strawberries with rhubarb is that the sweetness of the strawberries balances with the tartness of the rhubarb. Generally you add a lot of sugar to the fruit of a fruit pie, so it’s hard to distinguish the sweet components from the tart ones. What’s more, the flavors of the strawberries and rhubarb intermingle as the pie bakes, resulting in a new flavor that doesn’t naturally occur; a terrific flavor that should appeal to any fruit-lover’s sweet tooth.
Make your own Pie
I made strawberry-rhubarb pies the other day. Usually, I make two pies at once because it makes just as much mess as making one pie. I bake one, and put the second in the freezer to bake during the off season; you can put a frozen pie in a 300F degree oven for about 20 minutes, then kick the temperature up to 375 or 400 degrees and cook it for another 40 minutes to an hour… it comes out of the oven as though you made it fresh that day.
When I’m going to freeze a pie, I make it in a “disposable” aluminum pie pan; if I’m going to bake it and eat it right away, I prefer a glass pie plate. In any case, when I made my strawberry rhubarb pies, I took a lot of photos and videos. I’ve embedded the videos in this blog post.
The first (6 minutes 20 seconds) demonstrates how to make a bottom crust for a fruit pie: the ingredients, mixing, rolling out dough, and lining the pie plate. The second video (4 minutes 20 seconds) explains how I made the strawberry-rhubarb filling for two pies… and provides insight into how to make pie filling using nearly any fruit. The third video (5 minutes) demonstrates how to make a lattice crust for a pie: mixing dough, rolling it out, and forming the lattice crust.
If you’ve never made pie, watching all three videos in order will get you through. If you know how to make pie crusts but have never made strawberry-rhubarb pie, the second video provides enough information for you to make your first.
When you’re ready to bake your pie, put it in a 400F degree oven on a jelly roll pan or a round pizza pan for 45- to 60-minutes. Check on it after 30 minutes, and if the crust is getting dark, decrease the oven’s temperature to 350F degrees. The pie is ready when the crust is gold brown and the filling is bubly and thick.
When you’ve made your first strawberry-rhubarb pie, please visit Your Small Kitchen Garden blog and leave a comment about your experience. Finally, if you prefer written instructions rather than video, visit my sister blog, Your Home Kitchen Garden. There I’ve presented step-by-step instructions along with plenty of photos.
Do you have rhubarb in your small kitchen garden? I can’t imagine my garden without it. I’m certain that Rhubarb is almost strictly a food of gardeners; I don’t remember seeing it in the produce section in Boston’s grocery stores when I lived in Boston—or at the farmers’ market near Faneuil Hall.
In rural Pennsylvania, you can buy rhubarb in a grocery store and at the farmers’ market during the month or two it’s in season. I’m always overwhelmed by the price of rhubarb, and I note that it rarely has a prominent position in the produce section or on a farmer’s table at the market.
It seems unlikely you’ll experience rhubarb by chance. In my experience, people who know rhubarb grew up eating it at home. I imagine, however, that a lot of people have acquired rhubarb plants along with houses they’ve bought; if a former owner planted rhubarb, it’s quite likely still growing there. That gives the uninitiated a commitment-free excuse to try rhubarb.
If you’ve never tasted the stuff, don’t invest in plants. Rather, find a neighbor who’s willing to share—or buy some rhubarb stalks somewhere—and make some rhubarb sauce. The flavor might surprise you… but if you don’t care for rhubarb sauce, don’t give up on rhubarb. I’ve seen people who won’t touch rhubarb sauce devour rhubarb pie… and strawberry rhubarb pie, jams containing rhubarb, and rhubarb breads. I suspect they’d also go for a good rhubarb cake, but I’ve never seen a rhubarb cake, so I can’t be sure.
Once you’ve decided you like rhubarb, you’re ready to commit to one of the most rewarding home kitchen garden plants. Around here, you can buy rhubarb plants in nursery pots at garden stores and nurseries. A single plant runs about six to nine dollars, depending on where you buy it.
Rhubarb grows thick, tuberous roots that don’t like to be wet for extended periods. It also likes lots of sunlight and very rich soil. My dad used to dump raw horse manure around his plants to make them happy in the spring, and they never complained.
When you plant, select a place where the soil drains quickly. This is important: All my plants died one very rainy season when standing water collected for days on end. The next season, I planted in a slightly raised bed, but still lost two out of four plants when another rainy stretch saturated the soil.
Dig a hole at least six inches deeper than the nursery pot and about twice its diameter. If you cut sod to start the hole, put the sod grass-side-down in the bottom of the hole and cover it with soil and compost. If you didn’t cut sod for the hole, fill with compost and soil until the hole is as deep as the nursery pot. You should set the rhubarb roots two-to-three inches below the soil line, so if the nursery pot is full to the brim, make the hole you plant in a bit deeper.
Remove your new plant from the pot, set it in the middle of the hole, and fill around it with compost and soil until the hole is full. If there are young rhubarb stalks already growing from the roots, it’s OK for the soil to cover the bottoms of the stems. The stems themselves may not like it, but in the long-run, the plant will adjust to this planting depth; ideally, the top of the root should be three inches under ground.
Water rhubarb plants heavily for a few weeks after planting until you see new, vigorous growth.
It’s hard to kill a rhubarb plant by accident. I’ve never seen one burn from getting too much fertilizer so fertilize heavily in the spring, two or three times through the growing season, and again when you put your garden to bed in the fall. If you eschew chemical fertilizers add compost or manure often. Rhubarb grows most aggressively in mid-to-late spring, and may look pretty beat in the heat of summer. By fall, a rhubarb patch can look shot as the leaves wilt and stalks shrivel. I usually have some rhubarb-looking growth until fall, but everything above soil wastes away well before snow falls.
Don’t let the plant’s summer droopiness cause you to overlook it when watering. If the rest of your small kitchen garden needs water, so does the rhubarb. Give your plants occasional deep watering especially during dry spells.
Once stalks and leaves die back at the end of the season, mulch over the area with compost, manure, leaves, or grass clippings. Mulch will protect roots from early deep frosts, and provide some nutrition as young stalks push through in the spring. Rhubarb wakes up very early, and may be the first food you harvest in a season.
And that’s one of the most compelling reasons to plant rhubarb in your small kitchen garden: you do nothing to it from fall until spring, but it wakes up and quickly gives you a delicious fruit-like crop. This year, I harvested my first rhubarb stalks in early May while just a few of my herbs and vegetables were starting to grow. Only hardy herbs are ready in my garden as early as the rhubarb is.
In case you’ve never harvested rhubarb and made sauce, I wrote a blog entry detailing how. You can find it under the title Eat Rhubarb from Your Home Kitchen Garden. If you prefer watching over reading, here’s a video I created that explains how to make rhubarb sauce. It’s about seven minutes long. I hope you find it useful:
Here are links to articles that describe other uses for rhubarb:
Rhubarb Juice: A Many Spendored Thing – by David Perry. Many of you have heard or read me raving about rhubarb juice, a simple, healthy nectar that Dave Brown, wooden bowl maker, bread baker, birder, master canoeist, photographer, storyteller, life magician and director of the Wildbranch Writer’s Workshop first introduced me to…
Back to the Locabar: Rhubarb Margarita I’ve been hinting for weeks that I wanted a special cocktail for my birthday. Last summer we got so used to fresh, seasonal ingredients that our long winter presented a special challenge for the Cocktail Study Club. More often than not, Friday night rolled around and Charlie would say, “How about a martini?” I love his martinis but enough is enough….