How to grow rhubarb when the snow flies

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I've never grown winter rhubarb before - that is, rhubarb that is encouraged to sprout indoors when snow covers the landscape outside. There never has been the need.

This year, however, the usual number of pies and quarts of sauce didn't make it to the freezer by July 4; the traditional cutoff date for picking rhubarb in this region had come and gone.

Something will have to be done - and producing rhubarb in winter is the only option.

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Fortunately, according to those who make a regular practice of producing rhubarb stalks a couple of months before nature intended, the process is really very simple. That's because rhubarb stores in its thick, fleshy roots all the energy it needs for that first flush of stalks in the spring. In other words, if your rhubarb grew well the previous summer, it's bound to produce well in the spring - or in the winter, if forced indoors.

This, then, is how to get home-grown rhubarb in winter:

* Before the ground freezes, dig up a plant, making sure that you get up as much of the fleshy root system as possible. The more soil that clings to the roots, the better. It would help to deeply water the plant a day before you take it from the ground.

* Place the plant in a suitable container. A bushel basket will do nicely, but any box that is well drained will do fine. Pack new soil around the roots to replace any soil that fell off while the plants were being lifted.

* Leave the container outdoors long enough for the soil to freeze solid. This will induce total dormancy, a necessity if the plant is to do well the next year. At this stage many gardeners place the container of rhubarb in an unheated shed that offers both protection from the biting winds of winter and temperatures that remain low enough to prevent the soil from thawing.

* Sometime in early winter, bring the plant indoors and place it in a cool and fairly dark room, such as a basement. Within a day or two of the soil thawing out completely, leaf buds, seen as rounded bumps on the surface of the soil, will appear. At this stage, water the plant to keep the soil moist, always being careful not to make it soggy.

Full-sized stalks will take between 4 and 5 weeks to develop, at which stage they can be harvested en masse and cooked as you wish. The stalks will be paler than outdoor-grown varieties, but they will be sweet and ever so tender.

Many who grow winter rhubarb this way use excess plants from the garden and simply throw them on the compost pile when the winter harvest is over. But they can be replanted outdoors in compost-enriched soil as soon as the ground has thawed. However, the rhubarb will take some time to recover from its expended burst of energy in an unnatural environment, and it will take one to two full growing seasons before you can resume harvesting from it.

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