GARDENING: When rhubarb roots become a phantom menace

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I LIKE rhubarb. I like it so much I have it in my herbaceous borders, even though I have its even showier cousin, Rheum palmatum, in there too.

It’s a doddle to grow, even in containers, but beware – once it decides it likes where it is (which can take a couple of years), you’d better not decide to move it.

When I moved into this house, the entire raised bed beside the drive was full of it – for two 
people!

I decided to dig it out. The root systems are massive and snap easily, as do the spades you use for the job, so I spent a good five years dealing with stray bits.

I did keep some – if there’s a bud on the chunk of root, you should be OK – I assume the variety is Victoria, that’s what everyone grew way back when.

Rhubarb needs a sunny site with moist, free-draining soil, although two of my crowns are in part shade and fruit a little later, but still produce.

Dormant crowns can be planted between October and March – they love a bit of muck, so dig approx two bucketfuls per square metre, then plant so the tip of the crown is just visible above the soil.

Pot-grown rhubarb can be planted at any time, but will need plenty of water. Space plants 75-90cm (30-36in) apart, with 30cm (12in) between rows.

My mam’s had success with crowns in old potato bags – you can buy sacks specifically made for rhubarb now.

Rhubarb likes to be mulched, but don’t bury the crown as it will rot. Give them a dressing of Growmore in March, and water regularly in dry spells.

Remove dead leaves in autumn to expose the crown to frost – this helps to break dormancy for another good crop. Do not harvest during the first year after planting – the plant needs to build up strength. Remove a few stems the next year, then up to a third or half from then on, leaving some to keep the plant in active growth.

Don’t overcrop the plant even when mature – it’s best to stop harvesting by the end of June, unless your late varieties are very late.

You can force stems for an early crop. I’ve never done it, as it knackers the plant.

If you want to, cover the crown with a forcing jar, or a black bucket in late winter, cutting out all light. When stems reach the top, they are ready.

Forced stems are lighter and more tender, and are generally ready three weeks earlier.

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