THERE are many things a man needs to sustain him in life and one is rhubarb. There may well be items of greater importance, such as bread and butter, faith, humility and hot tea, but rhubarb is among the essentials. Anyone who has worked an allotment, or owned a back garden where dolly tubs rust quietly under elder trees and gutters sag from shed roofs, knows the one element that links them all is the rhubarb bed. A vegetable patch without rhubarb is like a hot-pot without potatoes. So this is my quest to grow rhubarb in Spain . . .
The challenges facing the cultivation of rhubarb in a Mediterranean climate are heat and evaporation. Rhubarb is not a common plant in Spain, but packets of ruibarbo seeds are available in most gardening shops. The strain I’ve purchased is Victoria, which, as it happens, in one of the varieties I grew in England.
Long ago, in that faraway land, I read that growing rhubarb from seed is a waste of time, the plant being best propagated by lifting the crown – or root – in the depths of winter and dividing it with a sharp spade (not a shovel, a spade). Like many things in that faraway land, this is a myth. I planted my Victoria seeds in pots last year and they grew like billy-o into delicate little rhubarblets.
I’m combating the heat problem by slinging old olive nets over part of the garden to create a degree of shade. Evaporation is being tackled by planting the rhubarb in a wicking bed – a device to which I was introduced by Pete and Sue Rodgers in nearby Lanjaron. Basically, this is a tank filled with a layer of gravel 25cm deep, covered with a membrane and backfilled with compost and earth. The gravel layer is kept saturated by means of pipes to the base of the tank, and the water “wicks” through the organic matter towards the surface. Evaporation is minimal because the plants are watered from below rather than above.
My tank is a redundant 1,500-litre header-tank rescued from behind the house; the gravel came from a hard-standing for a yurt that has migrated elsewhere; the membrane is an old carrot-fly net I brought from England; and the pipes were lying around waiting to be thrown out. The whole thing is constructed entirely from recycled materials. Even the compost is organic matter from my own garden compost heap.
The wicking bed, which I’ve buried in the ground at no small cost to my back, has been operational for a couple of months and my rhubarb is thriving. It’s growing as rhubarb should. All I need now is a willing cook to convert it into crumble. That’s the hard bit.