I always considered Australia a place where high temperatures scorched much of the continent (I’ve watched too many documentaries about the Outback) and where gardeners suffered through short growing seasons.
Apples? If you’re lucky.
Lettuce? Out of the question.
Rhubarb? Dream on.
Then I met Geoffrey Knight of Silvan, Australia, a small town east of Melbourne. Truth be known, I didn’t meet up with Geoff face-to-face. Rather I met him, along with a dozen other gardeners from around Ontario to Boston, during one of my Compost Academy classes.
To sort of break the ice before our first Zoom meeting, I ask students to email descriptions and photos of their garden plots and composting setups.
I do this for two reasons: First, I think the images help humanize a Zoom experience. Second, they also help the class blossom from a one-way delivery by the instructor, to a series of Show and Tells as we better understand and appreciate each other’s unique gardening — and composting — situation.
Geoff’s photos showed a yard entirely devoted to growing stuff. Kale, salad greens, three compost bins and ... a giant patch of rhubarb!
I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Turns out the area around the town of Silvan is well suited to growing fruits, vegetables and flowers. In fact, it draws tourists to the various pick-yourself orchards and berry farms. A cultivated hybrid variety of blackberry known as the silvanberry is named after the town.
Cool beans, as Pam Foreman would say.
During the next Compost Academy class, I pointed out the rhubarb patch in Geoff’s photo.
“We love our rhubarb! It’s one of the main reasons why I signed up for this course.”
We talked about how compost is the all-purpose answer to everything and how, when well made, it magically provides a smorgasbord of nutrition for plants.
Back in Kodiak, gardeners are grumbling. Is spring resisting warming up to the idea of gardening. On the bright side, red ‘knuckles’ of rhubarb are unfurling into elaborately creased leaves.
Anxious to get your garden growing? Could your rhubarb use a little coaxing? Coaxing a plant means to “force” it. And that’s exactly what many gardeners of the day would do to their rhubarb.
According to Great Britain’s version of Organic Gardening magazine, the forcing technique was discovered in the Chelsea Physic Garden in 1817 by accident, when a bright pink rhubarb plant was found growing nicely under a mound of soil.
When the plant was finally unearthed, the tender stalks were found to be quite tender and have a “superior” flavor. This “blanching” became the most sought-after crop in late winter, much like celebrating Kodiak’s First Salmon.
Yes, rhubarb growers around the world take their forcing seriously, especially commercial growers who rely on both the early forced crop (the pink, tender stalks or sticks as they are called), and the outdoor crop.
During the winter months, rhubarb plants are grown in large forcing sheds, in complete darkness. It seems the low level of illumination keeps the stalks tender. Me, I use a 5-gallon bucket.
In the UK, each stalk is carefully harvested by pushing a finger down into the root so it comes away with a curved ‘butt’ at its base. No snapping off of sticks allowed. Picking is still done by candlelight since tenderness, sweetness, mouth-watering color and lower acidity all help command a premium price.
Forcing rhubarb has become a tourist attraction and is big business in Yorkshire, England. Tourists flock in the spring to see the rhubarb growing in pitch-dark sheds. Perhaps this could become a new industry for Kodiak?
To make your own forcing shed, find a large tote, a 5-gallon bucket or simply attach a heavy-duty black plastic bag and secure it over PVC hoops or similar frame. The extra 20 to 60 degrees of heat makes a huge difference. (By the way, this same cover-up technique is an easy way to protect plants in an emergency, too).
While it’s not grown in complete darkness to produce a total blanched effect, your rhubarb will benefit from a jolt of warmth. And you might experience a jolt of inspiration.
THE KODIAK GARDEN CALENDAR
• Flowers Started From Seed: Dahlias, Schizanthus, Phlox, Portulaca, Nemesia, Marigold, Nasturtium.
• Vegetables to start indoors: Edible soybeans (edamame), zucchini (green and yellow crookneck/straight, mixed greens for salads, cauliflower, broccoli (first or second crops, OK), nasturtium, collards.
• Get your seed potatoes: Available at Sutliff’s.
• Set up irrigation hoses in hoophouses and greenhouses. Prepare raised beds outside for transplanting; got a rainwater collection system?
• Divide up primroses, rhubarb, poppies and other perennials to donate to the Spring Plant Sale: Noon Saturday, May 7, at 1223 W. Kouskov St. This is a community fundraiser where all proceeds go to KMXT. Meanwhile, we need stuff to sell!
NEEDED: Seedlings (veggie, herbs and flowers), perennials, and cuttings from shrubs such as currants and gooseberries. We also need (NEW!) gardening books and hand tools. For more information, contact Pam Foreman at KMXT: 907-486-3181 or Marion at 907-539-5009. Thank you!
Kodiak is promptly featured in m YouTube channel, It’s Never Too Late. “Kodiak lifestyle” and gardening videos at www.youtube.com/ItsNeverTooLate. Got a garden question, get it off your chest! email@example.com. It’s a good email if you’d like to be on my garden mailing list.