After a raving busy fortnight of muckspreading, ploughing and planting, we are well on the way to catching up from the setbacks of March’s shock weather. A few plants went in while conditions were still borderline, and may struggle to make that crucial early contact with the soil (which, cultivated before it was quite dry, was more vulnerable to damage under our tyres and feet). But after a week, most plants have sent out an inch of vigorous roots and are away.
The big job this week is dividing and replanting spent rhubarb crowns. Ideally this would have been done in February, but rhubarb, in addition to muck and custard, likes water; we plant it in deep, moisture retentive soil which is only now drying enough to make the work tolerable. The roots, which resemble rotten, lifeless tree stumps, are undercut, lifted and cut into 3-8 sections with spades and machetes. It is crucial to clean off the clinging roots of any perennial weeds before replanting in a weed-free field; couch grass, creeping nettle and creeping buttercup are the banes of organic rhubarb.
Rhubarb, initially brought from China as a purgative, was almost abandoned in the late 20th century in favour of airfreighted peaches, strawberries and grapes. Now it’s back in fashion with a vengeance. The UK forced rhubarb season starts in January, but planting stock has become very expensive, and we haven’t found a way to make this commercially viable. Instead, our outdoor crop starts in late April and runs through the summer, until the stalks get dry and tough or you lose your appetite for the stuff (whichever comes sooner). We have just started picking the remaining younger crowns, but expect a reduced crop; in such a wet winter, we weren’t able to spread the muck it so loves.
In the woods, we’re in the last week of wild garlic harvesting. As the trees come into leaf above, the leaves on the forest floor will yellow, putting all their remaining energy into seed and bulb production before being shaded out for the summer. The oak is out well before the ash, which, according to folk law, suggests we are ‘in for a splash’ rather than a ‘soak’, i.e. we should look forward to a dry summer – a welcome prospect after a winter from which we are only now recovering.