We have too much rhubarb. We always have too much rhubarb. There are long, thick tender green stems of rhubarb all spring, summer and autumn, then thinner, shorter-stemmed red rhubarb all through winter. The red-stemmed winter varieties can be picked in summer, too, but two giant stems of green rhubarb are easier to pick, peel and chop than two handfuls of thin red ones.
We just don't eat enough rhubarb these days, even though we have half a dozen flourishing rhubarb plants. I pick it once a month, maybe, for rhubarb and apple crumble, or stewed rhubarb to eat with porridge, muesli or ice-cream. One pot of stewed rhubarb takes three minutes to cook and lasts a week in a sealed container in the fridge.
My days of making rhubarb and ginger jam are over, too. We don't use much jam anymore, now we no longer have open garden days where 120 visitors munch through 240 scones with jam and cream. I no longer make rhubarb chutney, either, or sponge cake topped with cream and red rhubarb stewed with rosewater, or rhubarb upside down cake.
It is also difficult to give rhubarb away. Most people who adore rhubarb already grow their own, as rhubarb pretty much grows itself. Once it's in the garden it keeps growing, even if it dies down in winter, or for a year or two in a bad drought. Come rain or summer warmth, your rhubarb leaves and stems spring up again.
We are, indeed, entirely self sufficient in rhubarb, even if we ate it every day... So why do I badly want to plant some more?
Winter is the time of tempting plant catalogues. There are fabulous looking rhubarb varieties that we haven't got yet. I want to grow them to see if they really are redder than any in our garden, or grow better in cold winters, or are so tender they don't need to have their outer strings peeled off.
There's the new 'Crimson Sunrise' variety to begin with, which is said to keep its red colour even in the heat of summer, when other rhubarbs may have a red outer skin but be green inside. There's the old fashioned 'Cherry Red', too, which for some reason I don't have, possibly because it's mostly a backyard or market garden southern Victorian variety, and 'Big Boy', which comes from Mt Tamborine is Queensland, which deserves it's name. Big Boy has the longest, fattest, reddest winter stems of any rhubarb I've come across, even when it's not grown in the fertile soils and gentle climate of Mt Tamborine.
It would be folly to plant any of them. Rhubarb already takes up more than its fair share of space in our perennial vegetable bed, with the asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, horseradish, bell peppers, choko and others ever-growers. Except...
The Big Boy rhubarb I saw up on Mt Tamborine a few weeks ago looked stunning enough to be grown purely as an ornamental, it's stems so tall you could see the bright red under the wide green leaves. There just happens to be a few bare spaces in the flower garden out the front, which might look wonderful with a flash of red all through the year.
If I had a rose garden, which I don't, just climbers and ramblers keeping well out of wallaby reach, Big Boy rhubarb might look beautiful growing underneath them. Both roses and rhubarb like a well fertilised, moist soil. In summer the wide rhubarb leaves would keep the soil under the rose bushes shaded, and in winter there'd be red rhubarb stems under the bare bushes.
If by any chance you don't have rhubarb, this is the perfect time to hunt some out. There are many varieties just as tempting as the ones above in garden centres near you or online. If the stems look deep red and vigorous now, you know they're ones that will look good all year round in our climate.
If possible, choose rhubarb 'crowns' i.e. divisions from a large rhubarb plant, rather than small potted seedlings. The best rhubarb plants rarely go to seed, which means that seedlings may well come from a variety that goes to seed often. Winter is the only reliable time to find and plant rhubarb crowns, which is another reason to go rhubarb hunting now.
Plant at least three, and you will never be stuck for a quick dessert. Line trimmed rhubarb stems over shop-bought puff pastry, sprinkle with sugar, bake in a hot over till the pastry edges are puffed and light brown, and by then the rhubarb will be cooked too. Layer stewed rhubarb with sweetened cream to make a rhubarb fool, possibly with a little Cointreau added. Mix chilli jam with stewed or baked rhubarb, half and half, for a slightly less fiery and more spreadable sauce.
If you can be bothered, water your rhubarb every week it doesn't rain and feed twice a year, or mulch well. If you can't be bothered, the stems will be shorter and the leaves smaller, but your rhubarb will still be there.
And, just possibly, if I give way to my longing to buy new rhubarb varieties and plant them among the dahlias, I'll find the answer to the question 'Do wallabies and wombats like rhubarb?'
This week I am:
- Chopping garlic and spring onion leaves in the blender before adding to soups or hummous. Both can be just a little tough at this time of year, but are wonderful chopped into an almost puree.
- Looking enviously at rose catalogues and wishing either that wallabies hated the taste of rose and rose leaves, or that I had the time and energy for a high walled rose garden with pale gravelled paths to reflect the sunlight, as well as an automatic watering system, and 100 rose bushes to put it in, beginning with Peace, the Children's Rose, Papa Meiland, Mr Lincoln, Wife of Bath....
- Having an arborist judiciously prune large branches I can't reach.
- Scraping the moss off the paving by the front door, either with a spade or the moss scraper - a blade on a pole - that Bryan made, if I can find where we last left it.
- Cutting back the dahlias and all the salvias that haven't fished their summer/autumn bloom.
- Longing, as I always do mid-winter, for a half-hectare, 20-metre-high wrought iron centrally heated green house, with room for a small swimming pool, a large desk, 500 tropical plants, and me.