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Let Rhubarb Return You to Your Past

Friday, June 24th, 2011

June 24th, 2011

Are you a big wuss when it comes to the sweet/tart taste of rhubarb? Or do your childhood memories include a sojourn to Mom’s garden, stolen cup of sugar in hand, and chomping down on a bright red stalk?

As America returns to growing our own food, rhubarb is back in vogue. One of the few perennial vegetables, it’s an easy plant for those who don’t know diddly-squat about edible gardening.  Not into the Zen of hiding, rhubarb is both ginormous and forgiving.  Give it good garden soil, lots of sun and adequate moisture, and it’ll reward you with a bounteous crop which you can cobble, fool, pie and crisp to your family’s content. Don’t consume the leaves, though. They’re full of poisonous oxalic acid. Place them in the compost pile for safe decomposition, or mince in water and use as a natural spray against aphids.

Prepare a permanent bed for your rhubarb. Remember, you won’t be tilling or necessarily digging in amendments yearly. Start rhubarb from seed, or ask a gardening pal for a piece of their plant.  Or visit Hollandia Nursery in Bethel; they carry both ‘MacDonald’ and ‘Tilden’.

Rhubarb is ready to harvest in early May. Twist off finger-size stems at the base, but never take more than half of any one plant, and finish harvesting by midsummer. Try rhubarb’s zippy signature combined with raspberries, apples and other fruits, which enhance the intense flavor. It’s also a marvelous sauce for chicken, venison, or halibut.  If you’re overrun with bounty, cut the stems into chunks and pop into a Ziploc bag. Freeze for that dreary day when you need a tart taste of spring.

Care of rhubarb plants is a breeze. It’s generally pest-free, though slugs may damage leaves. Division is in early spring, and it transplants well, but be prepared for long, tough roots. Top-dress annually with compost.

With its big heart- shaped crinkled leaves and red tinted stalks, rhubarb is showy enough to qualify for a spot in the display garden. Mine grows in the midst of an ornamental bed, and I let it go to seed. The statuesque stalk bears a long-lasting white inflorescence and always elicits a “What the heck IS that?” from visitors.  The seed shoot doesn’t hurt the plant’s vigor, but I sometimes have to deal with a promiscuous scattering of baby rhubarbs come spring.

This lowly plant was first used in Europe in the 16th century, imported from Arabia. Marco Polo also brought Chinese rhubarb to the west. The attractive vegetable appears in America around the time of Independence and has continued to be a mainstay in the cool north.

My rhubarb, an unknown cultivar originally from the Canadian childhood home of a dear friend, moved with me to CT. Not only has it kept me in crisps, sauces and cobblers for almost 20 years, but each April, when it springs once more to life, it brings to mind times gone by. Both in my garden, and in life.

 

 

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Spirea Inspires in the Garden

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011faq

June 21st, 2011


Gardening Tips

Chartreuse spirea

Cathy Neustadt and I were meandering through her sumptuous Brookfield garden several years ago, admiring the color and variety of plants, when a small chartreuse seedling rising out the mulch caught my eye. “Oh,” Cathy said, “Those darn things.” The plant wisp was a tiny offspring of a nearby flamboyant ‘Goldflame’ spirea and was about to be tossed into the compost pile. “May I have it?”  I asked.  “Of course” came the generous reply.

At the time I didn’t know diddly-squat about spirea, but the mama shrub looked pretty good, so I took that baby home and planted it directly outside my front door, where it proceeded to grow and thrive. Two Junes later, it threw out an abundance of pretty pink clusters at the tips of its lime-green leaves and began its career of annually rewarding me for saving its life.

Spirea, also known as Meadowsweet, is native to the northern hemisphere, (and therefore valuable to bees and other wildlife) where American Indian and other cultures have long recognized its analgesic and anti-inflammatory qualities. In fact, the word “aspirin” derives in part from the word “spirea”. But we gardeners nurture this deciduous shrub for its beauty. A rock-hardy member of the rose family, there are two major types; those that bloom in May and those that bloom in June.

Would spring be as beautiful in New England without Bridal Veil spirea? Those aptly-named, old-fashioned arching shrubs, which can grow some 6 to 10 feet tall and wide, bear tiny white nosegays of flowers all along their branches. Our grandparents grew Bridal Veil, and its charm has never worn off, though there are new cultivars such as ‘Plena’ and ‘Snowmound’ which offer such attributes as double blooms and vibrant fall foliage. Space these shrubs 5 to 10 feet apart, and since they bloom on last year’s wood, prune for shape immediately after flowering. As the plant ages, also consider removing woody, older canes.

The smaller, mound-shaped spirea are finishing their first flush right about now, but will re-bloom (although more sparsely) if deadheaded or pruned hard after this go-round. While Bridal Veil is best used as a specimen or informal hedge, these summer sweeties go well in foundation plantings and perennial borders.  “Goldmound’ and ‘Goldflame’ both offer chartreuse leaves and pink blossoms while the old favorite, ‘Anthony Waterer’, in the trade since 1850, is noted for its carmine flowers.  .

An easy plant once established, spirea doesn’t grouse or grumble at benign neglect. It wants only full sun, average soil and water, and a simple scattering of fertilizer in spring. Deer leave it alone, but aphids can visit upon occasion. If your shrubs appear less than stellar, examine closely for a tiny sucking plague, and if indicated, spray with insecticidal soap.

Look for potted spirea at local nurseries,  but if you’re willing to grow a spirea sprout, follow my lead and beg a seedling from a gardening buddy. Passalong plants, and the associated memories, are the best kind.


 

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Relaxing in the Garden

Saturday, June 11th, 2011

June 10th, 2010

Gardening Tips

Gazebo framed by columbine and lilac

Wouldn’t you know it, the minute the patio is finally cleared of snow piles, last fall’s leaves and this spring’s potting soil, summer has decided to come in like gangbusters. It’s time to hang out, so last weekend I excavated the ratty old hammock from the garden shed. It used to be a Pawley’s Island beauty, but now it’s bedraggled, discolored and moldy in spots. Still, it holds this weary gardener’s bones after a long afternoon digging, hauling and planting. It swings from two pillars which support my deck, and I’ve attached a sturdy string to the deck rail above, so all a gentle tug rewards me with a nice sway. I used to have a cat who liked to ride with me, but my current feline beast, Big Ralph, declines the prospect.

From my hammock I can survey both the patio garden and much of the back yard garden. The daffodils and tulips have passed, but the Korean lilacs are in fragrant bloom, the hydrangea are budded and the Japanese forest grasses light up the shade. The view is delightful in all seasons, but especially so when the honeysuckle in first flush and the hummingbirds are drawn like magnets to the dainty gold and white flowers.  Gardening highlights the senses, and from my hammock it’s possible to hear the calls of the wrens, rustle of oak leaves and faint scritch of the chipmunks. Sights, this patriotic week include the red of weigela ‘Fine Wine’, white feverfew and blue forget-me-nots. Touch includes the rough yet gentle hammock knots under my tired body, and durable outdoor pillow under my head.

When I designed my gardens, I not only made room for a hammock, I also selected spots for benches and other resting areas. One bench sits by the fish pond, another under the maples on the south side of the yard, and others are scattered about. The gazebo, with its sheltering roof and wrap-around seating, is a favored place for gardener and cat alike. Each garden, in fact, has one or two places to rest and gaze. Most gardeners in my acquaintance have their special places in which to enjoy a cup of coffee, make garden to-do lists and wave to the neighbors.

Do we use them as much as we should? Nope, of course not. No gardener rests as much as she should. There’s always another weed to pull, plant to water, or rock to haul.

This is not to say we shouldn’t. It’s good to have places of respite. One of my favorites, where I do spend a few minutes, is a wooden bench tucked in behind my mailbox garden and in front of the compost pile. There, sheltered from the view of the road only yards away, I admire the butterflies flitting over the verbena bonariensis, cosmos and Black-eyed susan.

 

With the change in the weather, the heavy spring work of transplanting, mulching, and edging is about finished. So get out your hammock, level the bench, and stroll over to the gazebo; it’s time to relax in the garden.

 

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