Apply some force - rhubarb

This photo of me covering up my rhubarb crown with a large pot was taken on the allotment today.

The reason I was covering up the rhubarb crown was to exclude the light, which forces young, tender shoots to grow upwards. In the gardening world we call it ‘forcing’. The bright red stems taste much sweeter and more flavoursome than when grown in normal conditions. The crowns can be covered up with posh clay forcing pots, but I prefer to use an upturned dustbin or large pot. The usual time for forcing is about now, but in Yorkshire they have started earlier in their commercial forcing sheds, and stems are just coming available to chefs in the market gardens now. The technique of forcing rhubarb into early growth was allegedly discovered at the Chelsea Physic garden in 1817 when somebody accidentally covered a dormant crown with soil.  A few weeks later, when the soil was uncovered it revealed these delicious blanched stems, that were sweeter, redder and better flavoured than when grown under usual conditions. The technique of forcing rhubarb was born. However it wasn’t until the 1870s that people started growing them commercially, by taking the crowns inside and growing them in the dark in warm forcing sheds. The area that came synonymous with this technique is between Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford and is known as the Yorkshire rhubarb triangle.

A treat for Autumn too.(Livingstone - photo above - will produce stems into Autumn - haven't tried it yet)

I love rhubarb! Just the perfect amount of acidity and sharpness to cut through the sweetness of crumble and custard, yet bursting with fruit flavours (okay, veg flavours, but that doesn’t sound as nice). Until now it has always been something I’ve only been able to enjoy from early springtime until mid July. However, thanks to a new variety called ‘Livingstone’ it is now possible to keep harvesting right through until autumn. This new strain has had its summer dormancy eliminated, which causes conventional varieties to stop producing stems in mid summer.  Now it is possible to combine rhubarb with autumn fruits such as apple and blackberry to create amazing new seasonal combinations of dessert!

With Yorkshire producing forced rhubarb through winter, and Livingstone producing stems in autumn, it really does seem that rhubarb isn't just a spring treat. It is becoming an ingredient for ‘all seasons’.

Restoration of frame yard at Polesden Lacey

The Edwardian cold frames at Polesden Lacey would have played an essential part in the food production for the previous wealthy owner Mrs Greville. The frames enabled the gardeners of the time to use the latest gardening techniques to grow crops all-year-round.  This was no mean feat as they daily had to supply food for 180 members of staff and send fruit and veg up to Mrs Greville’s London residence in Mayfair. More importantly it would have supplied the sumptuous food for her lavish dinner parties that she regularly held for royal visitors and celebrities of the time.

Mrs Greville’s extravagant hospitality and generosity was legendary in the Edwardian period. Visitors included Edward the seventh, Winston Churchill and even Charlie Chaplin. George the sixth and the late queen mother had their honeymoon at Polesden Lacey and would have dined on food produced from here. 

Words below by Rosie Fyles, Gardener, Polesden Lacey, Surrey

Volunteers Gilbert Townsend, Steve Cassidy and Colin Day are restoring our cold frame yard into a glorious undercover growing space once again. Polesden Lacey’s 31 cold frames, surrounded by a new herb garden, the old potting shed and a flourishing cutting garden, had fallen into disrepair. Rotting, flaking and no longer serving a productive purpose, they were on Head Gardener Tim Parker’s ‘to do’ list.

However, the cost of renovation proved unthinkable – up to £13,000 for even a limited restoration. Tim explains, ‘I was walking past the frame yard with one eye shut, as all around it began to be transformed. The frames were derelict. I hoped that the right type of volunteers might be recruited but knew it was a big ask.” Sometimes, the right person is in the right place, at the right time. Gilbert, a semi‐retired woodwork and metalwork teacher, takes up the story, ‘Tim showed me the frame yard and asked me what I thought. I told him that’s a four year project. I’m happy to start on my own but I’ll be quicker with someone helping me.’

Steve came on a volunteer open day and offered to do some DIY. Within days he was re-laying a path with Gilbert and together, they took up the challenge of the frame yard. Steve says, ‘We have learnt as we have gone along. We faced deglazing 496 panes of glass without breaking them and removing old putty from the frames was a big problem. The internet didn’t offer any quick solutions; however, Gilbert invented a way using an adapted power router. We also realized that we could speed up our painting and drying times and reduce the project from four years to two years by recruiting someone else.’

Colin joined in February and comes in two days after Gilbert and Steve each week once drying has taken place. Colin says, ‘I don’t have any particular DIY skills. Gilbert and Steve have taught me how to do it via an initial meeting, emails and the odd 15‐20 minute chat. I take a lot of pride in what we have achieved but we are not doing anything special. The whole team around us in the garden and in the house work as hard as we do.’ 

Working in a tiny 3x2m workshop converted from the gardeners’ old mess room, and with half the frames now as good as new, the team estimate that they have 720 hours left to completion. Undaunted, they are now so efficient that they are picking up other jobs on the property too, restoring more than twenty wooden benches and painting a set of new garden interpretation boards.

Community kitchen Garden at Polesden Lacey, second session

We’ve had our second session of clearance at the community kitchen garden at Polesden Lacey. Thanks to Hillys for supplying the most amazing carrot cake, decorated with vegetables made out of icing sugar. Next year we are hoping to bake the cake from our very own carrots from the garden.

About 20 brave souls ventured out from the warmth of the garden mess room and into the pouring rain to do battle with tree limbs and wet sods of soil.

We have made a dead hedge from the lime branches that were removed from the trees as we want to recycle all the materials from the site. To build the dead hedge we banged in two rows of vertical stakes at 40cm apart and simply laid the branches into it. It will become a haven for birds and insects and hopefully a few small mammals.

Our next session will be in January. We hope to start planting our first vegetables this coming spring. We will also be planting a wide range of fruit trees to improve the biodiversity, and replace the monoculture of the lime trees.

Kate Rice (above) is the Project co-ordinator for Polesden Lacey's community Kitchen garden. If you live near Polesden Lacey and want to take part in this exciting project then please email her - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Benefits of autumn planting fruit trees

Now is a great time to plant a fruit tree. After a warm summer, the soil should be cosy enough for tree roots to establish themselves before the onset of winter. This should ensure they are ready to romp away in spring. I’ve planted one of my favourite apple trees ‘Pixie’ in our orchard at Polesden Lacey which features over 60 local varieties from Surrey and Sussex. It is similar to Cox’s Orange Pippin, but less prone to disease, juicier, crispier and is a good keeper. And it has the most amazing, evocative aroma imaginable! And most importantly, is a seedling developed from Wisley fruit dept (in 1947), where I started my horticultural career 15 years ago.

I’ve dug out a hole twice the width of the rootball and gently loosened the soil below with a fork, but not so much that the tree will sink after planting. Make sure when planting a fruit tree, that the graft / bud join is above the soil. Look for the bulge towards the base of the trunk. I have added plenty of garden compost to the planting hole to give the tree a good start, as our thin chalky soil is, well, basically rubbish! It is best to put the upright post in prior to planting as this avoids driving the stake through the root system (the stake in the photo above is about to be replaced)

(Pixie apples below)

Fruit trees are usually bought in containers or bare root (basically without a container). Bare root trees are cheaper and usually healthier as they haven’t been left languishing in a pot for months and become root-bound. Bare root trees are only available during the dormant season, which is roughly between Oct and late February.

I’ve also added our magic ingredient, mycorrhizal fungus. It is readily available in garden centres in powder form, and is a beneficial fungus that is sprinkled around the root system of plants. It exists by taking sugars from the plants in exchange for providing the tree with extra moisture and nutrients from its fungal strands. The mycorrhizal basically add an extended root system. This fungus is particularly useful in gathering in phosphorus for plants, which is often in short supply in natural soils. Don’t quote me on this, but at Polesden Lacey we use mycorrihizal fungus for all our planting, and tt seems to overcome replant disease with roses and fruit trees.

In March, add a mulch such as well-rotted horse manure around the root area. This will suppress the weeds and help retain moisture. Don’t add it now, as the mulch will simply wash away in the winter rain.

Autumn visit to Wisley

I was giving a talk last week at Wisley Gardens to a group of National Trust volunteers on the spectacular autumn colour on Battleston Hill, The air was scented with the burnt-sugary smell from the Champion Tree Cercidiphyllum japonicum on Battleston Hill and the avenue was lined with the huge flower heads of Hydrangea paniculata, while the higher canopy looked stunning with foliage of Quercus rubra and Q.coccinea showing their true colours!

I also had the opportunity to visit my old place of work….the model fruit and veg gardens…where my horticultural career first started 15 years ago.Despite being so late in the year, the model vegetable garden is still lush with an abundance of gourmet horticultural treats. I love the sweet potatoes ‘Beuregardd’ that they’re successfully growing here…without the use of cloches. Who would have thought that these delicious tubers are closely related to bindweed!

I love the size of the Celeriac ‘Prinz’ although they do look a bit like those Harry Potter ‘Mandrakes’ that scream when lifted out of the ground....these don't scream, although I have been known to shout expletives when cutting my fingers when grating these knobly veg in the kitchen. These must be the largest fennel ‘Rondo’ swollen stems I’ve ever seen. Sow seeds early in the year to get your fennel this large. The chopped up stems add a wonderful aniseed-like flavour to dishes.  

This mini-leaved Corsican mint (Mentha requienii) growing in a trough in the RHS Wisley herb garden is perfect for a small veg garden . If you have a larger space, they make a beautiful fragrant lawn, but require slightly damp conditions.

The corsican mint leaves make a delicious tea, but if you want to grow the real thing, then grow Camellia sinensis (below) It has an attractive white flower with a yellow centre and can be grown in containers or in the ground, but require slightly acidic soil. Harvest the growing tips and dry them out before brewing them in a teapot for the perfect cuppa.

Finally these Jerusalem artichokes in the model vegetable garden (below), make a beautiful yellow splash of colour to the autumnal veggie garden with their attractive yellow flowers. They can reach up to 3m high, so be very careful where you chose to plant them, as they will cast lots of shade on the veg plot. Closely related to sunflowers, I recommend these tasty tubers to anyone who loves their subtle, nutty flavour .  Just be aware, they can have slightly windy repercussions the following day!