The Apocalypse Allotment No. 3: Rhubarb

A magnificent rhubarb plantOne of the joys of adopting an allotment for your post-apocalypse life is finding plants the previous owners have planted that you can take over with a minimum of fuss. I was particularly lucky in that my apocalypse allotment came with rhubarb! Not all that surprising, considering I live in Yorkshire, home of the Rhubarb Triangle. Whilst rhubarb is native to Siberia, it does very well in the rich soils and cold wet winters of Yorkshire. And as my internet handle, ‘Rhube’, is short for ‘Rhubarb’, growing rhubarb is not only a delight, but a must!

Rhubarb is a striking plant with wide green leaves and thick, tart edible stems. The stems are mostly pink, and tend to be pinker the less sunlight they see. Rhubarb can be ‘forced’ by keeping the plant in darkness (or near darkness) so that the stems grow fast, tall, and neon pink, making for the tastiest, tenderest, pinkest eating. I’ve tried it for the first time this year, and let me tell you – it works!

Forcing Rhubarb

Rhubarb with a pot over it

Forcing Rhubarb

Rhubarb farms keep rhubarb in massive, dimly lit barns, but in the apocalypse we don’t have that luxury (or the need for quite that much forced rhubarb!). The small subsistence farmer can achieve the same results on a more manageable scale by placing a large tub or other container over the plant just as the leaves begin to poke from the soil.

To the right, you can see that I have used a very large plant pot, but you could also use an up-turned bin or other container. As you can see, my rhubarb patch is very large, and I was never going to be able to force the whole clump, so I’m just covering one section. These photos don’t really reflect scale, but that is a very big plant pot. Rhubarb grows very big. Note also that I have weighed down the pot with rocks, this is partly because the weather is very wind here, but also because rhubarb grows fast and tall, and I don’t want the rhubarb forcing the pot off itself too easily.

The result, within a couple of weeks, was very pink stems, ready to be picked!

Forced rhubarb

Note how much greener and larger the leaves are on the unforced patches of the clump. It’s perfectly possible to pick and eat unforced rhubarb (and I intend to!) but the forced stuff is pinker, less tough, and more flavourful. I mean, all rhubarb is pretty flavourful, but if, for instance, you want to make bright pink jam, instead of muddy brown jam, forced rhubarb is the way to go.

Finding Rhubarb

By May you’re not going to have any trouble figuring out if you have rhubarb in the land you’ve usurped, but in February, March, and early April you could easily miss it. Rhubarb becomes completely invisible in the winter months, retreating below the soil and lying dormant in its massive roots. This is what rhubarb looks like just as it begins poking through the soil:

Baby Rhubarb

Keep an eye out for the small, wrinkly green leaves. These leaves, which start out tiny and tightly packed, will inflate into the huge leaves seen above.

Separating Rhubarb

As mentioned above, my patch is huge and old. The advantage of finding rhubarb someone else planted is that you can pick it as soon as it’s ready. If you’ve looted* a rhubarb plant from a store, you need to give it a year to establish before you start harvesting. It’s much better to check out what other people have left behind and take over a plot with an already established clump. Every year I harvest more rhubarb than I can possibly eat – this is a plant that will give you plenty to trade, or to preserve in jams for the winter!

The disadvantage to having an old, well-established rhubarb clump is that the clump gets pretty crowded. The large flower spike shown below looks impressive – good enough to frighten a triffid!

Rhubarb with a flower stalk

TRIFFID.

Unfortunately, a rhubarb that is flowering is a rhubarb that is diverting energy away from growing those lovely edible stems. The rhubarb plant grows this when it’s getting too crowded and wants to spawn young somewhere else. The reality is that the seeds are likely to  fall around the plant and make it more crowded. It’s basically not ideal all round. If you see a flower spike, break or cut it off at the base. Sometimes it will just snap off, but rhubarb plants are tough, and you may need shears.

The best solution to overcrowded rhubarb is to split up your clumps every five years, preferably in early spring when the plant is dormant or just starting to grow. I’ve had my allotment for five or six years now, and I don’t think the old guy who had it before could have had the strength to split this stuff up, so it had gotten waaaay overcrowded in my clumps. I had to do something about it.

Here’s what you do: loosen the soil all around your rhubarb with a fork, then, if possible, lift up the whole clump. This was not possible with my ancient clump. Rhubarb roots are huge and all tangled up. Some of the roots were nearly as thick as my wrist. I had to just lift it up as much as I could, and then move on to step two.

Step two is to get a spade and chop your rhubarb down the middle, or wherever is convenient to split it up. I wish I had taken photos of this, but it was some of the toughest physical labour I have ever engaged in and I was kind of busy. I also made the  mistake of trying to separate my rhubarb using only a fork. Don’t do that. Use the sharpened spade you keep around for decapitating zombies. The fork got stuck. Me and my friend used feet and hands and fork and everything wrestling the clump apart. It was hard work, let me tell you!

I had two friends who had wanted rhubarb of their own for years, and I don’t have room in my allotment for more rhubarb – my rhubarb is already overcrowded! So I separated off two chunks, which they took and put in some mud. A lot of mud. Rhubarb needs a lot of space, and if you do decide to grow it in a pot, make sure it is a HUGE pot. I still had a clump left over, which, because I had nowhere to put it, I left on the surface of the soil to… deal with later. Two weeks later, it looked like this:

A tangled ball of rhubarb roots, still growing

I have neglected this poor thing to high heaven, and it’s STILL GROWING. Friends, this is a survivor. Keep this thing in your land just for inspiration, tbh.

General Rhubarb Care

Rhubarb doesn’t need a lot of looking after, it’s pretty hardy. It comes from Siberia, for God’s sake! The main thing is it likes a lot of water. Look at it. It’s HUGE. But at the same time, it has giant roots and can survive dry periods pretty well. If you live in a desert climate… no, OK, this isn’t going to work, but rhubarb is ideal for temperate or cold climates.

Keep it watered. Pull stems from the moment they look long enough until June. Don’t pull too many stems at once – make sure you leave the plant enough leaves to photosynthesise with – and it will keep on producing for you. There will be stems on into the summer, but if you stop pulling in June you allow the plant to top up its energy reserves for the winter.

You’ll have a great crop of rhubarb for use in pies, crumbles, jams, and even just eating raw with sugar. But remember – the leaves are poisonous, so only eat the stem!

*Remember! Only loot after the world has ended!

 

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