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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Divide, Divide…or Be Conquered…

division...not simple“You better divide that!”Nancy L, my environmentally-sensitive friend told me as she waggled her forefinger at my rhubarb plant. Her advice came across more as an order than a recommendation. I suppose her tone of command stemmed from the fact she had given me the same advice last year and I had shrugged it off. According to Nancy L, when a rhubarb plant sprouts flower spikes and blooms, it’s time to separate it.

I  guess I should have been a better custodian of my rhubarb because it’s Nancy L I have to thank for that humongous clump of root and foliage she’s pointing at. A half dozen years ago I applied some “hot” compost to my rhubarb and fried the invincible mound of stalks and leaves (A Rhubarb over Rhubarb, 7/1/2010). In two weeks the leaves turned pink, then red, and finally melted away altogether, leaving a hole in the ground that resembled the Roswell Crater…on a lesser scale, of course. I stood on the lip of the crater that used to be my rhubarb, stared at the void in disbelief and thought: “No summer pies, either rhubarb or strawberry-rhubarb, no rhubarb sauce with ice cream, no rhubarb-strawberry preserves…no flavorful astringent rhubarb stalks to pucker my mouth on a hot summer day. “I’ll bring you a start from my plant,”Nancy L assured me. She did and after I shoveled out the old grave and refilled it with fresh, new “cool” compost, I planted Nancy L’s gift…yes, the very one she’s waving her finger at now. “So you think it’s about time to divide that thing?”I tease. Nancy L gave me an “I told you so” scowl and as she walked away, exclaimed,  “You’ll need an ax!”ax work

An ax?  Did I hear her say “an ax?” Certainly Nancy L wasn’t serious.  I planned a bit of simple division, that’s all, not an execution and headed to the garage for the shovel. I returned to the base of operations and dug an eighteen inch deep moat around the root until it perched there like a miniature medieval castle with knobby rhizomes for turrets, the newly unfurling leaves bobbing like flags, and went to the house for lunch.

Years ago I had the idea our place needed some horseradish, so I picked up a starter root at a local nursery and planted it next to our well standpipe. In just two years that single root grew into a patch of thick green leaves, each with roots of  its own. Thinking a good thrashing would kill the thing, I ran the tiller through the patch. Big mistake there: each chopped chunk became a new plant, multiplied like  the severed rays of a starfish, and by that fall I had enough product to supply horseradish for every prime rib roast in the Valley. Next spring I took a shovel to the patch, dug out all the small roots and bagged them for the trash. The taproot, however, was a monstrous thing, like a gigantic dandelion root. Three feet down I dug and still the root was a full inch in diameter. I chased after it for another couple of feet but could see the root of the problem was well on its way to China. I gave in, hoping the earth would swallow it up. (If you are a fan of horseradish, and purchase a jar of spread, for the sake of curiosity you might check the label to see if its contents were “packaged in China.”) At this point, here’s a gardening tip: if you’d like to have fresh horseradish from your backyard garden, I suggest you corral the root with a good, strong container. Better yet: the best container to use is one full of creamed horseradish from your local grocery. So it’s horseradish baggage I pack with me as I head back out to lay siege to “Castle Perilous,” that ominous mound of rhubarb root.the root of the problem

Seasoned rhubarb wrestlers advise you to take the new divisions from the edges of the root and discard the woodier center. As rhubarb division was unfamiliar territory for me, I decide to take their advice and chip away at the perimeter. The aggregate looked pretty much the same, so tentatively I direct the shovel at a peripheral sprouting clump. To my surprise, the rhubarb deflects the blade, repels it, and the shovel glances off the woody surface as if it had struck a boulder. I redirect my angle of attack from another quarter, but each time the results are the same… the shovel ricochets off the root. I’m sure I’m imagining things but after several futile attempts, I thought I heard the clump laugh; at this point I’m the object  of rhubarb ridicule. “An ax,” I thought…”didn’t someone mention an ax?” I set the shovel aside and headed for the woodshed.rhubarb pit

With ax in hand I decide to use the“tough love” approach on that stubborn chunk of tuber. The clump I chop my way through is about two feet across and nearly that deep in the soil. Disregarding individual nodes and clefts, I slice off slab after slab, separating what look to be healthy replants and pile them on the lip of the trench. Further ax work shaves off the woody pulp which I also heap around the hole. Two hours later I have the wheelbarrow heaped with chunks of rhubarb and now the additional  problem of how to dispose of them. the roots runneth over“FREE” always seems to work, and I consider wheeling the load to the right-of-way and setting a “FREE rhubarb” sign next to it (worked fine when I last divided my iris).

Looking back on the experience, I recall tree stumps that were easier to extract. After the pit was “sanitized,” I filled it half full of compost, shoveled in some garden soil, and replanted the spot with a new plant. Then either in a moment of muddled thought or overwhelmed by excess rhubarb, I planted five more plants. Yes, now I have six plants… and two or three years down the road six times more work ahead. But I have a sharp ax… a chainsaw…and I could always rent a stump starts


Planting more work

(Note: my wheelbarrow is empty.The next day I visited the Valley where I found Paul Bischoff tending his vegetable farm. “Need some rhubarb?” I asked hopefully. Paul did indeed. That afternoon he relieved me of the excess, and now they’re his problem.)

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