• People in Helmsley Walled Garden

January 2018 – Early rhubarb

Forcing rhubarb - Helmsley Walled GardenSo here we are, new year ahead of us full of possibilities for the garden. In the Garden, we are manuring and digging and pruning apple and pear trees, of which we have over one hundred. We are also cleaning out our terracotta pots and cleansing the greenhouses with sulphur candles to try and get them as pest free as possible.

We used to have terrible trouble with whitefly and aphids in the Orchid House. However, it’s now pretty much clear due to the cleaning regime and also good plant hygiene.

Over in the Vine House we have spent the past few months pruning the vines back whilst the sap was low and stripping back the old bark on the vine rods. Mealy bug and scale insects love to burrow under the old bark to lay their eggs so in order to clear them out before they hatch, we peel the old bark off. It’s a slow and painstaking job but worth the effort in terms of plant health.

So there is still much to do. One thing we might try here if we have a bit of time is to force some rhubarb.

We have some traditional terracotta forcing pots but you can use a bucket or a big pot. Stems grow more quickly if you can be sure you have excluded all light. So you can either put some black masking tape (efficient but not very elegant) to tape over cracks or holes. Or you can just encase the whole thing in bubble wrap, carpet or even straw as long as it is firmly anchored round the pot to act as a layer of insulation and a barrier against light.

Before that, dig round the stems and add some well-rotted manure or maybe some good garden compost. Make sure you remove any weeds as they will compete with the rhubarb for nutrients and you want to make sure the plant gets everything.

Generally it will take around eight weeks to get stems ready to be harvested (they should be about ten to twelve inches or 20-30cm tall) but in a colder winter it might take a bit longer. The stems will be pale pink, thin and very sweet. Harvest them as usual and enjoy the champagne like flavour of early home-grown rhubarb.

One important thing to remember is do not harvest from any plants you’ve used for forcing either this summer or the following year. Forcing takes a lot of energy from the rhubarb crown and it needs time to rebuild its strength. It’s also more susceptible to disease so keep an eye on it and if it looks sickly as the year progresses you can try giving it another good feed come winter. Or you can remove and replace it although best to avoid the same spot for replanting. You might want to try growing some new plants from seed. So have some fun and enjoy an early rhubarb crumble. My mouth is watering just thinking about it!

Tricia Harris January 2018