Garden Notes

Rhubarb time again

Among the many plants beginning to flower this spring is rhubarb. This 'Victoria' plant, as well as other varieties, makes very good landscape plants. Photo by Susan Safford

By Abigail Higgins - May 24, 2007

Memorial Day weekend is here and it seems to be axiomatic that just when the Island sheds its wintry, bare-tree appearance and becomes flowery and lovely almost everywhere one looks, the caterpillars arrive. They have arrived; micro inchworm caterpillars that look like moving dust, but happily, so have multitudes of birds.

Meanwhile, down at ground level, it is rhubarb and asparagus time. Many Island gardeners have the late tinsmith, Ed Donald of Vineyard Haven, to thank for their rhubarb. He had a patch in front of his shop. When you came for your metalwork he might offer you some roots, if you happened to admire his plantation. We got roots from him, but that was for a different garden. They produced lovely red stalks.

The 'Victoria' rhubarb in our vegetable garden, a green stalked variety, is now flowering. An Edgartown gardener was reminiscing to me about the sorely missed rodgersias at her former Vermont home. We agreed that rhubarb similarly makes a first-rate landscape plant - a giant exclamation point - and gives those with a flair for garden drama the opportunity to grow something resembling a gunnera or petasites without a bog or stream on the property. According to Wikipedia, there are about 60 species of Rheum, the plant's botanical name, which are allied with the docks; but the garden forms are R. rhabarbarum or R. rhaponticum, with most culinary varieties and cultivars being simply R. x hybridum.

Still dry down deep

There has been an extended period of little precipitation in April and May, if you don't count fog, and the soil has been getting dry. The three-plus inches of rainfall over the weekend refreshed the thirsty ground and watered in landscaping efforts all over the Island; amazingly though, the ground beneath our umbrella-like rhubarb leaves was still dry!

One good way to prepare rhubarb sauce without additional liquid is to chunk up the stalks and cook them with honey to taste in the top of a double boiler, till soft. Another good rhubarb dessert recipe: make a flour, sugar, and butter murbeteig, or tart base, which is pressed into a pan. Cover that with sliced rhubarb, sprinkled liberally with sugar. Bake it in a hot oven, about 400 F, for 15 minutes. Then reduce the oven heat to 375 and cover the rhubarb with a mixture of one cup of sweet or sour cream, mixed with two egg yolks. Bake 30-40 minutes until set and lightly browned. Cut into squares.

Some rhubarb lore has it that stalks should not be harvested once the plant flowers; other rules advise harvesting the stalks only between April and June. In any case, leave enough stems and leaves to nourish the roots. The plants are super hardy and actually thrive with a cold dormant period over the winter. When the plants disappear at the end of the season, heap the spot with compost or manure. Dig and divide the roots when the leaves begin to look puny, or after about four years. Rhubarb cultivars in addition to the aforementioned 'Victoria' include 'Canada Red,' Cherry Red,' 'MacDonald,' and 'Valentine.'

Perennial like rhubarb, spring asparagus was once a commonplace joy. It has now become a luxury for most. It is not difficult to grow. The lack of space and the loss of active vegetable-growing behavior, only, are what cause asparagus to be a luxury of "modern" life.

To start an asparagus patch, most gardeners buy mail-order roots known as crowns. This is actually a fairly labor-intensive way to start, as trenches must be dug and filled with manure - at least this is the recommended way - into which the crowns are planted, gradually filled in, waited for, and eventually harvested. However, asparagus from seed is less expensive and easier: as many observant people can attest, bird-sown wild asparagus grows everywhere. It takes about three years until your first taste of seed-grown asparagus.

It must be said that an advantage of buying asparagus crowns is that then one can buy all-male ones, usually having "Jersey" as part of the name as they are the product of a Rutgers University breeding program. This eliminates the females, which use up a lot of energy that could go into shoots production, by instead making and ripening that bird-sown seed. The main idea is that, either way you start the asparagus patch, sooner or later you eat your own homegrown asparagus. Keep the bed weed-free to eliminate competition. Plants should be about a foot and a half apart in the row, and the same distance from the next row in the bed. Some experts recommend clearing off the mulch annually and replacing it with fresh, to control the asparagus beetle. Again, as with rhubarb, pile on the compost or manure over the winter, as asparagus is known as a heavy feeder.

Seasonal chores

Do you have clumps of bulbs that are becoming overgrown? I know everyone is quite busy enough in the garden and time is scarce, but this is the best opportunity to dig those clumps and separate and replant them, before their foliage dies away and you cannot locate them anymore. A nice thought is sharing the bulbs, or trading them with a friend who has a different kind. Planting depth is generally three times the diameter of the bulb: so with the lesser bulbs it is quite shallow, only an inch or two.

Lavender and santolina plants are showing their new bushy growth at the crown and with buds breaking visibly, low down along the branches. These two more or less share a growth pattern. By pruning or shearing back now to thicken the plants up, those bare intervals along the branches can be avoided.

Weeds are of course burgeoning: dandelions going to seed and all the other familiar annual ones, like crabgrass, germinating. Eliminating them in their small stage is always preferable and is done with one of the many hand cultivators designed to stir up the soil. Later on they must be literally weeded out or, like dock, dug or grubbed out. Avoid that hard work by cultivating those weedy areas now.

It is not too late for an annual side dressing of lime on lilac and privet hedges. Deadhead the lilac flowers after they have gone by and prune out any branches that did not leaf out. Prune forsythia whips, or any other part of the shrub that needs shaping, now.