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Growing Rhubarb

a great bunch of rhubarb Besides delicious rhubarb pies, rhubarb also makes an excellent desert, and particularly in summer, when its refreshingly delicious flavour is most appreciated. Rhubarb is also an extremely hardy plant - one could say small shrub - which lasts for decades, with hardly any care at all. Harvesting outweighs care by a factor of about 10 to 1.


Rhubarb is started from chunks of root, called crowns. When buying new ones, go for the kind with the reddest stems for the best flavour. Three to four rhubarb plants will yield ample stems for a family of four rhubarb lovers, including canning.

Since we are going to break off stems with their big leaves for many years, it's best to start rhubarb on a large base of composted manure. A small wheelbarrow full would be just about right. Old established plants lose their vigor when they get old. Old crowns need to be lifted and divided, and the old center of the crown should be discarded. Divide old crowns by carefully by breaking them into hand-size chunks bearing new shoots, discarding the old center, and replant. Dig a hole about two feet wide and deep, chuck in the composted manure and excavated soil shovel by shovel, turn by turn, adding about 2 gallons of sand for good drainage as you go along.

Plant the new or divided crowns just below the surface of the soil, scattering a generous handful of bone meal, well mixed with the soil, just under the crown. Keep moist. Do not harvest stems until after the second year after planting. This lets the rhubarb plant grow and expand, so you'll have a larger plant to harvest from for many, many years. Harvest lightly in the third year, for the same reason, and from then on, freely for about 8 weeks ending in late June. Break off leaf stems at the base by bending outward, away from the center. Never cut off rhubarb stems, as this injures the plant. Remove all flowering spikes as soon as they appear, as seed production will take up most of the growing energy of the plant. You may have to do this more than once. And contrary to oft heard opinions, the leaf stems do not turn poisonous after the flower stalks appear. Only the leaves contain oxalic acid, which is poisonous to man and beast.

Top dress existing plants heavily with manure, or water frequently with dirty dishwater - the best fertilizer there is - during the growing season, and after the harvesting season, to encourage solid new growth. Mulch to conserve moisture, and suppress weeds - to avoid damaging close to the surface crowns by hoeing. The large rhubarb leaves from the harvested stems make an excellent mulch, and so do weeds. We let the weeds grow to between 4 and 6 inches tall, and then shear them about one inch above the ground and lay them over in place, as a mulch. In this manner, the nutrients the weeds took up are not only returned right to the place they came from, but in far more complex, much better, and more easily assimilated form. Most of the work a plant must do has been done by the weeds already.

Since this is a fairly novel approach, a brief explanation is in order. All growth, and all progression from barren sand, silt and clay to rich fertile loam is a process of progressive complexity. And so is photosynthesis itself. All plants take the simple elements of the soil and the air (nitrogen), and fashion them into more complex carbohydrates and highly complex amino acids and proteins. The amino acids and many proteins are very stable, even when returned to the soil. And with the decay of the sheared weeds all the organic material and nutrients, as well as the highly complex plant-manufactured amino acids and proteins are returned to the soil - which raises the complexity of the soil. This is exactly how Nature has transformed the once stone-barren primeval Earth into the rich, fertile, teeming and immensely complex biosphere it is today, in a process in which the the Earth has become richer and more fertile year by year and millennium by millennium. And we are using and engaging the very same process - which turns out to be a fundamental law and force of this universe itself. For it too has evolved from the ultimate simplicity of its primeval energy to the astronomical complexity of its present state. Powerful stuff indeed.

Naturally, it works wondrously well, and the high biological complexity the weeds have created is integrated into the soil right on the spot, and does not go wasted, or short circuited and prevented (with poisons), as with all other methods of dealing with weeds. Rather than the perennial scourge of gardening, weeds are one of its greatest and most powerful assets. And do not worry about weed seeds. The shearing, about three times a season - the weed mulch also slows down their growth - does not let them get to the seeding stage. Using weeds in this manner, and exactly for the purpose as Nature has intended, not only makes our soil more complex, and hence richer and more fertile season by season and year by year, but it also gives one the profound satisfaction of knowing that we are working hand-in-hand with the immensely powerful universal law that has created and woven the immense complexity of Life itself out of the ultimate simplicity of energy. Heady stuff, by any standards. But there it is and, in this manner, we can use and employ this immensely powerful universal law, and be part and parcel of the process. (Now you also know why there is an image of a dandelion seed - itself an intricately more complex thing than the simple elements it was woven out of - at the end of every article). Next, we'll devote ourselves to growing onions.



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