Minimum of care grows great rhubarb

The rhubarb patch was one of the most vigorous I had seen. The stalks were as long and sturdy as some bean poles I know. If I hadn't exclaimed at the sight, Ron Rood, naturalist and author who lives in Vermont, would have seen the admiration in my eyes anyway.

Would I like some, he wanted to know. Would I ever!

With that sort of rhubarb, one stalk would make a pie -- and then some. So, using a spade, Ron dug out two small sections, showing little concern for the plant, I thought at the time. Then he handed them to me in moist newspaper.

It was July, not the optimum time for transplanting rhubarb. Yet the two casually sliced-off root sections took readily in my garden and we have had all the rhubarb we have needed ever since. The story indicates how rugged rhubarb is, how readily it grows, and that some of the old-fashioned varieties are as good, if not better, than some of the all red-skinned types now offered by nurseries.

When it comes to rhubarb, there are just two types of people: rhubarb lovers and rhubarb haters. In my experience, the haters simply don't know how to use the fruit. Remember, rhubarb isn't just for pie or sauce any more; it's for a host of other products as well.

Even if rhubarb alone doesn't top the taste charts, it can prove incomparable when blended with other ingredients.

It adds a fruity zest to cakes, for example; makes a great bread, and can be blended with virtually any other fruit in jam. Mix it half-and-half with citrus fruits and you get a great marmalade. Turn rhubarb into juice and you can use it in place of other liquids in an almost infinite variety of recipes. Mix rhubarb and orange juices together and you get the sort of sweet-tart taste that the cranberry industry likes to boast about.

Cynthia Driscoll, writing in the Family Food Garden magazine, says she adds rhubarb juice to ginger ale for a most refreshing drink. Now why didn't I think of that!

Often rhubarb will reward the gardener well despite the rather casual treatment it gets in most yards. But it is a heavy feeder by nature and will produce best of all if its hearty appetite is satisfied.

When the newly emerging stalks poke through the ground in early spring, top-dress liberally with compost or partly rotted manure. I strive for an inch-thick layer. A light sprinkling of 10-10-10 fertilizer will help if you have neither of the former materials. No matter what you do, mulch the rhubarb with some organic material. Shredded leaves or straw will do nicely.

A couple of years ago I gave a bucketful of compost to a neighbor expressly for a rhubarb plant that she said had not produced well in years. That year, by contrast, she was almost ecstatic over the numerous stalks she was able to pick. I suspect the ''comfort'' provided by the blanket of compost did as much for the plant as the nutrients it contained.

Pick rhubarb stalks by pulling steadily and firmly with a slight side-to-side movement. Never take the stalks immediately alongside the central crown because you could damage the crown. Older stalks on the outside can be left to feed the roots.

In summer and fall rhubarb stores energy in its thick root system and it is this stored energy that gives the pie plant its early spring vigor. So stop picking from the plant in early summer; say around July 4. After celebrating Independence Day we leave the plant to do its own thing.

During the growing season always remove any seed stalk that grows up. You will readily recognize it. The idea is to let none of the plant's energy go into seed production.

Divide up the old plants in the fall. It is recommended that a plant be divided at least every four years by taking a sharp spade and cutting down through the center of the plant. I know this probably seems brutal -- as I thought naturalist Rood was several years ago - but the rhubarb won't mind it a bit.

Leave one half undisturbed to provide you with rhubarb the next season. Divide the other half into several sections and plant out in bushel-basket-sized holes that have been filled with a rich mixture of manure, compost, and soil.

By the way, rhubarb is readily stored in the freezer. Simply wash, dice and throw it into a plastic freezer bag. There is no need to blanch rhubarb. We find rhubarb sauce stores equally well in the freezer but we store most in the form of pies. The juice can also be frozen or hot-packed in airtight bottles and stored on the shelf.

Meanwhile, keep experimenting with rhubarb in the kitchen. It's the only way to use up all the stalks your pie plant will yield.

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