May the forced (rhubarb) be with you

Janet Oldroyd Hulme in the rhubarb sheds at Carlton, near Wakefield. Picture By Simon Hulme
Janet Oldroyd Hulme in the rhubarb sheds at Carlton, near Wakefield. Picture By Simon Hulme
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With water, water everywhere, David Overend looks at the prospects for this year’s rhubarb crop.

Prolonged wet weather may be the bane of the farmer and the gardener, but if you think they are having a rough time, spare a thought for the poor rhubarb grower.

Rain (not just this winter, but as far back as 2012) and cold springs have had a devastating effect on the common rhubarb plant, and nowhere has been hit harder than the “rhubarb triangle” a small areas of land between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell, in West Yorkshire.

Rhubarb rootstock is grown outdoors before being taken into “forcing” sheds where the plants put on a prodigious amount of tender growth – the fruit which ends up on our plates in the likes 
of rhubarb crumble.

But heavy rain leeches nutrients from the soil, and long, cold springs put a dramatic brake on the plants’ ability to grow.

Should you ever be driving up the M1 towards Leeds, spare a thought for both the plants and growers as you glance out of the window at the fields – and the “forcing” sheds – where a very old and specialist industry is based.

Inside those sheds, in the dark, rhubarb grows at a furious rate; so fast, in fact, 
that you can, quite literally, hear it grow. And to make sure it’s kept in the dark as much as possible, it’s harvested by candlelight.

The common gardener needn’t go to such extreme lengths to grow his or her own rhubarb – it’s one of the easiest crops to raise. Just plant crowns (mature roots) in a sunny, well-dug, manure-rich site, and a year later, you should be pulling fresh, succulent sticks from March until the end of May, and making pies, crumbles, jams and chutneys.

And by forcing – covering the developing shoots with a large bucket or even a securely-fastened black polythene bag, harvesting can be brought forward to as early as February.

And the earlier the crop, the more tender and juicier it should be. Although it is possible to pick rhubarb well into summer, the sticks produced after the end of May tend to be stringy and a bit tough. Best to stick to a six-or seven-week period of harvesting and then let the plant recover.

Given a yearly dressing of manure, one crown of rhubarb should last 10 years before it needs replacing, although occasionally, some plants do fall foul of diseases such as crown rot and, even more occasionally, honey fungus.