A young friend of the family graduated from high school recently, and his grandparents Bob and Norma hosted a horde of us at their farm for the graduate’s party–which featured Bob’s homemade vanilla ice cream. While we were there, Bob shared with me his secrets for keeping his rhubarb plants producing all season long.
“I use blue manure, that’s the secret,” he said, with a raised eyebrow and a smile. I knew he was pulling my leg, and soon enough he ‘fessed up. “Blue is Norma’s horse, the bay over in the front corral over there. I use cooked manure compost, and fork or turn that into the rhubarb bed every fall and just after the spring thaw.” He’s also careful with the plants when he harvests. “They’re in a good location here in the garden, between the house and the barns over there. They’re in the back rows, and get shade either from the house or the fruit trees, which helps keep the roots cool.”
“Once the rhubarb starts to leaf, I make sure there’s straw mulch piled around the roots, to keep ’em cool and hold the water in. Rhubarb needs lots of water, and with the manure on, that straw really keeps the moisture in. The cooler the soil, the more shoots you’ll get, and if you keep it cool enough, and water enough, you’ll get rhubarb until first freeze. If you cover it, you can keep it going until the air temperature gets too cold in fall.”
“See all those little baby rhubarbs down there? Those will grow right up as long as I keep watering and keep the mulch up. When stems get bug-eaten, or raggedy, I pull ’em up, and then lay them under the main plant, and that helps make the babies too.”
“Now, when you harvest, you know, you don’t cut rhubarb. City folks, they think it’s cut, like celery or something. You just grasp that rhubarb stem down near the ground and pull it straight out. It’ll come right off, and save the roots, which will keep making the starter leaves as long as you look after it right.” Generally, he uses a weeper hose for all-night watering sessions a few times a week throughout the growing season to keep the soil moisture at an ideal level.
Bob doesn’t just grow rhubarb in his efficient garden. “We have quite a few varieties of sweet and hot peppers; and then we have broccoli, horseradish, onion, tomatoes, kohlrabi, beets, a few radish, cucumbers, potatoes, sweet potatoes, green peans, Florida butter beans, you know, pole-type beans. The usual stuff. We can, we freeze, put the harvest up and then we can eat from our root cellar and freezer all winter.”
The Florida butter beans have a story all their own. “A fella I know brought them back for me from a Florida trip. I wanted a white pole bean, but not a green bean, more a butter bean, a mild lima bean. After the beans are mature, I take a handful of the cleaned raw beans, stick ’em in a baggie and put them in the freezer until spring. They draw moisture there in that freezer. Then I plant a couple of dozen of them in the spring. They grow well for me.”
Bob and I spent about two hours walking his garden, grape arbor, small apple and pear orchard, and looking over the flowerbeds Norma’s nurtured in the nearly 20 years they’ve owned the small farm. It was the best graduation party I’ve ever attended. (Stay tuned for Norma’s fantastic rhubarb custard pie recipe in an upcoming blog.)