With established rhubarb, you can get an early crop by ‘forcing’ it. All this means is that you get the plant to send up stalks earlier than usual by covering the crowns and thereby excluding light. There are special day forcing pots you can buy for this but a large plastic pot will serve just as well. You might need to place a brick on top just to stop it being blown away by the wind. Surround the pot with straw and in about four weeks the crown should send up tender shoots, much sweeter than stalks grown in the usual way. With forced crowns, leave for two years before picking again to enable them to recover.
Another strategy would be to dig up the crowns in late fall and let the frost get to them. Then put into a pot full of multipurpose compost, water in and then cover with another pot. Put in a frost-free area. The drawback is you will need to lose the crowns afterwards.
It’s perfectly feasible to grow rhubarb in a pot but make sure it’s a big one, 60cm deep and 60cm diameter, and that there are drainage holes in the pot. Fill with multi-purpose compost, plant the crown just below the surface of the compost and water in. Add a mulch of well-rotted organic matter in early spring and add a liquid feed of general fertiliser in spring and summer.
After about five years it’s best to dig up your rhubarb and split it. The tell-tale signs that it needs splitting are thinner and weaker stalks than usual. This should be done in winter. Dig up the root and with a sharp-edged spade, divided into two or three pieces, depending on the size. These can then be replanted (or given away if surplus to requirements). Rhubarb roots can run quite deep so be prepared to do some hard digging! Make sure you get all of the crowns up too as any portions loft in the ground will send up shoots in spring.
Varieties To Try
‘CHAMPAGNE’: The stems of this early variety are deep red in colour. Suitable for forcing. Buy as crowns.
‘GLASKIN’S PERPETUAL’: This can be bought as seed and will produce large, juicy stems. A late-maturing variety.
‘TIMPERLEY EARLY’: This is the earliest maturing variety and well-suited to forcing. Stems are slender and bright red. Can be cut as early as March. Buy as crowns.
‘VICTORIA’: A late maturing, heavy cropping variety producing long, greenish-pink stems. Buy as crowns.
Pest and Diseases
CROWN ROT: Waterlogging or wet heavy soil can cause the crowns to rot so picking the right site is important. There is no cure, unfortunately – dig up infected plants and burn.
HONEY FUNGUS: This shows itself as white streaks on the crown. There’s nothing that can cure this fungal disease so dig up to crown and burn as for crown rot.
Wait till the second year of growth before you start picking stalks, and even then do it sparingly.