Have you ever considered that many food crops have a “highest form?” You know, basil turned into pesto, grapes turned into wine, filberts turned into Frangelico and so on. Rhubarb is one of the best illustrations of a garden crop that on its own is virtually inedible, but combined with a little sugar, a little flour and a few more ingredients it becomes a treat, a highest form of the first degree!
Rhubarb is a perennial in the garden, much like asparagus. With good soil preparation and attention to feeding it will happily grow for years, producing bumper crops of stalks that can be turned into delicious desserts. Plant roots, packaged or potted, right now while temperatures are cool. Rhubarb will grow large in time, so choose a sunny, well-drained location where it can spread out without competition.
Soil preparation is key. Dig a large hole about 18 inches wide and deep and mix in manure, mushroom compost or your own compost with the soil. Set the crown so it’s about one inch below the surrounding soil, backfill and water well. As the leaves unfurl in the coming weeks work some all-purpose fertilizer like 6-8-6 into the soil. Mulch around the plant but keep the mulch away from the crown.
In the second year the plant will put out seed pods, which you’ll want to cut off so the plant puts energy into roots. Keep working fertilizer into the soil; rhubarb is like a teenage son; a heavy feeder. You can harvest stalks in the first few weeks of the season but overharvesting will weaken the plant. In subsequent years stalks can be picked for up to two months or more.
Because they grow so vigorously rhubarb needs to be divided every four or five years. This is not an exercise in specialized technique. In the fall, after you’ve removed the yellowing leaves, drive a shovel right through the middle of the plant. Dig up half of the root and refill the space with a mix of soil and compost. Give the other half to your neighbour or plant it elsewhere in the garden. Simple.
I can’t believe it but there are more than 300 varieties of rhubarb being grown in the cooler parts of the world. “Strawberry Red” seems to be the standard these days; it produces large red stalks of good quality.
I’ve yet to meet a rhubarb dessert dish that I didn’t like but Mom’s recipe for Strawberry Rhubarb Coffee Cake will bring me screeching into the driveway every time-
3 cups sliced fresh or frozen rhubarb (1 inch pieces)
1 quart fresh strawberries, mashed
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup butter or margarine, cut into pieces
1 ½ cups buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup butter or margarine
¾ cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup sugar
In a large saucepan, combine rhubarb, strawberries and lemon juice. Cover and cook over medium heat about 5 minutes. Combine sugar and cornstarch; stir into saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly until thickened; remove from heat and set aside. In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Beat buttermilk, eggs and vanilla; stir into crumb mixture. Spread half of the batter evenly into a greased 13 in. x 9 in. x 2 in. baking dish. Carefully spread filling on top. Drop remaining batter by tablespoonfuls over filling. For topping, melt butter in a saucepan over low heat. Remove from heat; stir in flour and sugar until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Sprinkle over batter. Lay foil on lower rack to catch any juicy fruit spillovers. Place coffee cake on middle rack; bake at 350 deg. F for