Compost heaps, seakale, rhubarb plants and
by Barbara Pilcher February 2003
Even in the coldest
days of winter, the compost heaps are snug under
their blankets of old carpet. Attending to their
needs continues as time, weather and energy permit.
Sometimes it is necessary to clear one bin out
so that a partially rotted heap may be turned
into it, thus keeping the process moving along.
This physically demanding task gives the heap
renewed energy, and off it goes steaming away
in the cold air, and decomposition is well under
way. It is tempting at this time to dig the finished
compost straight into the garden, but this may
not be the best course of action. When it is still
too soon to be planting crops, it is necessary
to cover any beds treated with compost with polythene
sheeting so that the valuable nutrients are not
leached away by the copious amounts of rain we
are sure to have before planting time. Better
I think is to mound spare compost in a heap or,
(easier to cover and to dig in when the time comes)
a long mound alongside the bed. Covered with black
polythene, weighted with planks or stones, it
will sit until required in a month or so when
the growing season gets under way.
terracotta covers are already in place over
seakale and rhubarb plants so that there will
be beautiful blanched leaf-stalks soon. There
is still time to start forcing: simply choose
a few healthy parts to cover, making sure they
are not ones that were forced the previous year.
These need a resting year to recuperate! There
is also still time to make root cuttings of
seakale. I find it convenient to do this while
organising forcing pots as I would propagate
from those plants that I am not forcing. Using
a fork, and proceeding with care so as not to
damage them, a few good roots are located and
cut about 10 cm from the plant. This thick end
is the proximal end and is the upper end when
you make each cutting; that surface should be
cut straight across, so it is clear which way
is "up". The roots are brought into
the greenhouse or potting shed where some pots
of rooting mix are made up. I use peat-free
organic compost mixed with a half quantity of
vermiculite. The roots are cut into segments
about 6 cms long with the proximal end cut straight
and the distal end, that towards the tip of
the root, cut obliquely. Now there is no chance
that the cuttings will be put in upside down,
which would greatly hinder or even prevent rooting!
Using a spatula or dibber, insert the cuttings
(flat end uppermost!) into the moist compost,
several to a pot, and with the top surface just
proud of the compost. The pots are placed in
a light but not too sunny position, somewhere
frost free. Keep just moist and watch for little
green buds to appear around the outer part of
the root. These can be thinned out to 3 or 4
per root, by carefully "rubbing out"
surplus buds with the thumb. Later they will
unfold into young leaves, roots will grow and
the cuttings may be potted up individually in
the late spring and grown on into young plants.
It is as simple as that.
Seakale seeds can also be sown at this time;
it is a slightly slower method of producing
plants than taking root cuttings. The latter
technique has the added advantage, of course,
that it maintains genetic identity, so it is
the ideal way to perpetuate a favoured variety.
There is still just time to propagate some rhubarb
as this is best done between October and March.
After selecting a vigorous healthy plant, pieces
of the crown, with at least one good bud, are
severed using a sharp spade. These "sets"
are planted in a fresh piece of ground that
has had some manure or compost incorporated.
The buds should be just above the surface and
sets 21/2 to 3 ft (75 - 90 cms) apart. The soil
around the new plantlets must be kept free of
weeds and moist throughout the next season.
Cropping should be deferred for at least one
year, and any flowering stalks cut off. With
very little effort you have new plants. However,
if your existing plants are losing vigour, don't
propagate from them, but bring in some fresh
virus-free stock and plant it in a new position.
timely too to hand weed the asparagus bed, yet
another source of a gourmet treat. It is important
not to cultivate deeply around the asparagus
crowns as the developing spears are easily damaged.
Stakes or canes may be usefully renewed now.
This year I am making "quadripods"
of my canes by gathering each group of four
into a point, fastening with a length of wire
and binding with some young pliable willow stems.
By using a variety of willows ( or Cornus) with
coloured bark, these give both a decorative
finial and a protection against eye-damage when
weeding or harvesting. Asparagus seed may be
sown now, ensuring there is a supply of replacement
plants for any gaps in the row.
we are well on the way to the production of
some of the most traditional and delicious of
kitchen garden produce, forced seakale and rhubarb
and asparagus. Surely a satisfying harvest to
look forward to in the early days of spring.
heaps, seakale and rhubarb | Harvesting,
drying and storage | Extending
the season for fresh herbs
| Winter herbs |
Preparation | April