Depending on the circles you move in, rhubarb can be a criminally unsung crop.
This vivacious vegetable (yes, it’s a vegetable!) grows big and proud, its characteristic pink-red stalks erupting out of the ground and into the sky. When picked and trimmed of its toxic leaves, the stalks are delicious and versatile, lending themselves to crumbles, jams, and even gin mixes!
One thing that makes rhubarb a popular crop for those of us in the know, is how easy it is to grow. Rhubarb needs little care or attention, evidenced by how often you’ll find it in the wild if you know where to look. It grows well in warm and dark conditions, and has a long harvesting season that can start in winter if you know how – great for incorporating into your growing calendar to ensure you’ve got something ready to harvest for as much of the year as possible.
In this article we’ll teach you how to force rhubarb: a technique that brings the start of the harvesting season forward slightly. This should be of interest whether you’re a long-time fan or a complete amateur.
What is forcing?
Put simply, forcing is a way to make rhubarb grow faster and earlier in the year than usual.
Forcing is basically tricking the plant into thinking it’s spring, encouraging it to grow more quickly towards what it thinks is the warm springtime sun. This is achieved by simulating warmer growing conditions during winter, and it’s surprisingly easy to do.
How to force rhubarb
There are a few steps to forcing rhubarb, none of which are difficult.
Prepare the area
First up you’ll want to clear the area at the base of a fledgling rhubarb plant. This means removing weeds, old leaves, and any garden detritus that may have gathered around.
Add some compost
Next you need to spread a little compost around the rhubarb, taking care that it doesn’t actually touch the stalks. Doing so can burn the crop and hinder its ability to grow. Just put it in a ring a couple of centimetres away from the plant.
Cover your rhubarb plants
This is the crucial step: you’re going to cover your rhubarb with a pot, trug, bucket, or similar container. Choose something opaque to block out all-natural light, and ideally with only one hole to allow airflow.
If your covering is made of a light material that may get blown away in strong winds, make sure to weigh it down with a brick or something similar. Plastic plant pots and buckets will definitely require weighing down to prevent them from being blown around your garden once the wind picks up.
Wait for nature to do its thing
It takes anywhere over three weeks to force rhubarb. When you check under the containers you’ll see thick pink stems, and these are ready to pick when they’re upwards of about 18cm.
The longer you leave your rhubarb the bigger it will get, although check in occasionally to make sure things aren’t getting too cramped. Depending on how many rhubarb plants you have and the weight of the container, you may even see the stalks lifting the container off of the ground! As we said earlier: rhubarb is very enthusiastic.
Remove the leaves
Before you do anything with your rhubarb, remove the green leaves. While the stalks are delicious and versatile, the leaves are poisonous and should not be used under any circumstance.
What else do you need to know?
Now we’ve introduced the technique for forcing rhubarb (we told you it was easy!), here are a few things that should help you to see better results.
Number one: where possible, only force established rhubarb plants as the process is quite intensive, and younger plants can take longer to recover.
Once you’ve forced a rhubarb plant and harvested the resulting crop, don’t harvest again from the same plant for the rest of that year, even if it grows decent looking stalks. You need to give the plant time to rest to put it in best stead for a strong and healthy harvest in subsequent years.
Don’t worry about running out of rhubarb early if you force your crop though: it’s easy to stagger things to give yourself multiple harvests. To do this, just leave some plants uncovered to grow at their natural pace. Your forced crop will be ready within a few weeks of being covered, and you can harvest the remainder as and when it starts to look ready. For a plant with a long harvest season, sometimes up until late August, this gives you a lot of flexibility.
What to do with your rhubarb
We’d be remiss if we wrote an article teaching you how to increase the size of your rhubarb harvest, then didn’t give any suggestions of how to use the resulting crop.
We’ve said a couple of times that rhubarb is versatile. Its naturally tart flavour is robust and captivating, and lends itself well to sweet and savoury dishes. As well as the famous rhubarb crumble with custard, you’ll find rhubarb works in jams and preserves, ideal for cheese and other savoury faire, and even alongside certain cuts of meat.
Here are our top five ways to use rhubarb in your kitchen:
- Make a crumble. This is pretty much compulsory for your first rhubarb harvest, and we recommend doing it at least once a year, preferably as autumn sets in and you need to remind yourself about the joys of hearty home-grown food in cold weather.
- Make a cake. The humble sponge cake makes an ideal canvas for rhubarb’s distinctive flavours to play on, and your friends will love this unusual twist on the familiar recipe.
- Make some jam. An allotment rite of passage is to make at least one chutney, jam, or other preserve out of everything you grow. Rhubarb should not be left out of this list.
- Make a meat condiment. Mix your rhubarb with fortified wine, sugar, vinegar, and orange zest, then serve it alongside a nice fillet of beef. Savour the new and exciting flavour combination.
- What it in a gin. Wash and trim down your stalks, then put them in a mason jar, cover with gin, add a few spoonfuls of sugar, and seal. Give it a good shake to dissolve the sugar, then leave for a few weeks. When you’re done you’ll have a deliciously sweet homebrew gin.
Give rhubarb a chance
Once you start experimenting with rhubarb – both in terms of growing techniques and recipes for your harvest – we’re sure you’ll grow to love it. With a bountiful harvest so readily available and hundreds of delicious recipes to try, there’s no reason not to get yourself better acquainted with this plant. We hope you enjoy!