This vegetable only reached Britain in the late 16th century although the roots had been cultivated for medicinal purposes in China for several thousand years. It was not until the early 19th century that rhubarb stalks were appreciated for their edible qualities. At the present time nearly half the total acreage of rhubarb grown in England and Wales is in the West Riding of Yorkshire.

Cultivation. Rhubarb is best planted in October or March. Planting in mid-winter is inadvisable, especially on heavy soils, as heavy and prolonged rains may cause the roots to succumb. An open position away from the shade of trees is desirable and light to medium well-drained, rich soil is probably best. It must be dug two spits deep and enriched with compost, hop manure, peat and similar humus-forming materials. Note that rhubarb does not thrive on very dry land, hence the need for working in plenty of organic matter. As it is a semi-permanent crop it is worth going to some trouble over soil preparation. Set the roots 4 ft. apart and cover the crowns with 2 in. of soil.

Watering may be needed during drought until the plants are well established. Do not pull any ‘sticks’ until the second year and then only pull over a period of 3 months. Commercial growers often stop pulling in June. The stalks can be used for jam making as soon as the foliage starts to turn yellow. Remove any flower spikes that may appear — if they are allowed to remain, the plant is weakened. Rhubarb responds to generous feeding, whether with farmyard manure or inorganics. The former can be applied in late winter or early spring. Occasional applications of a nitrogenous fertiliser such as sulphate of ammonia will counteract the effect of frequent pullings. It can be given in winter or spring.

Rhubarb is increased by division in February or March. Lift the plants and split into separate pieces, each with one or more crowns. Although rhubarb will often continue to crop well for 10 years or more (provided it has been given reasonable attention throughout this period) it is usually better to lift and divide every fourth year.

How to Force Rhubarb:

Choose plants not less than 2 years old. Lift the roots in early November or later as necessary, turn upside down and leave on the soil surface for about 3 weeks to expose them to frost — this hardening makes the roots start into growth more quickly. To force outdoors, cover each root with an inverted pail, barrel, box or large pot or even a large drainpipe. Surround with fresh manure to stimulate growth (desirable but not essential). Alternatively force in a warm, dark shed or under the greenhouse staging, placing the roots in boxes of soil, the crowns just showing above the soil. Syringe daily with warm water as an ample supply of moisture is imperative. Prince Albert and Victoria are favourite varieties for forcing, although any other variety will do.

Choice of Varieties:. Very few named varieties are available but those in commerce are all good. Prince Albert and Hawke’s Champagne (Champagne) are early, The Sutton and Victoria later. Glaskin’s Perpetual is a relative newcomer which can be pulled about 6 months after sowing and in the second and subsequent seasons can be pulled longer than other varieties, I.e. into early autumn. It does well in the north. Amateurs do not often raise rhubarb from seed but Glaskin’s Perpetual should encourage them to try this method. With this variety, sow in a warm greenhouse early in March or a week or two later in pots in a cold frame. Transfer to permanent positions (4 ft. apart) in May. For other varieties sow outdoors in drills about 1 in. deep and thin to 1 ft. apart in May. Transfer to their permanent quarters the following March but do not pull any sticks until the next year. Pests and diseases are seldom troublesome with this crop. Crown rot may appear on neglected plants, causing spindly sticks and a soft brown rot in the crown. Any infected plants should be consigned to the bonfire.

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