What's in season: April
There are many opportunities for planting, growing and harvesting now that spring is fully underway.
It's a good time to start collecting early, unforced rhubarb stems and preparing your seed bed for planting veg, including beetroot, radishes, chard and carrots.
We're sharing our tips and recipes to help you get the most out of the season.
The most important job you can do in the garden at this time of year is to prepare your soil for germination and early growth. Start by removing all weeds, so that young seedlings don't have to compete for water. This can be done when you're digging and raking the soil to create a fine tilth. You can then decide what to plant where. Different crops need to be sown at different depths with more or less space around them, so it's best to check the back of the seed packets for guidance.
Veg to plant out: Beetroot, carrots, swiss chard, summer cauliflower, kohl rabi, lettuce, radishes, turnips, spring onions, pickle onions, peas and spinach.
Veg to plant indoors or in greenhouses: Aubergines, broccoli (calabrese), chard, celery, okra, onions, peppers, squashes, pumpkins, onions, shallots, garlic and asparagus crowns.You should be able to plant these out in the garden in a month or so when the weather is warmer.
Vegetables to buy and harvest
- Spring onions
- Forced rhubarb
- Purple sprouting broccoli
- Spring cabbage
This month it's all about rhubarb
The origin of cultivated rhubarb (Rheum x hybridum) is a bit of a mystery, but it's thought to be a hybrid of wild plant species native to Central Asia and Siberia.
What we do know for certain is that historically, rhubarb was valued for its medicinal properties long before it was used in cooking. It was grown for thousands of years in China, where, according to the BMC (BioMed Central), it was not only used as antibacterial and anti-inflammatory but also to treat other conditions including cancer.
Rhubarb reached Europe in the 14th century and became a very valuable commodity alongside other traded goods such as silk and pearls. Its popularity grew rapidly in the late 18th and 19th centuries as better varieties were developed and sugar (used to sweeten it) became less expensive.
Growing rhubarb in the dark
The Victorians discovered that growing rhubarb in dark sheds produced the finest tender stalks. The crop was also harvested by torchlight. There was such a high demand for the vegetable that the ‘rhubarb triangles’ were formed in the cities of Wakefield, Leeds and Morley. These produced 90 per cent of the world’s so-called ‘forced’ rhubarb. This growing method, designed to encourage the early growth of tender stems by covering the crowns, is still used today.
Back in fashion
Rhubarb fell out of favour during the mid to late 20th century, when it was associated with dull and stodgy deserts. However, it’s now enjoying a revival with interest from growers and cooks alike. There are many traditional and modern varieties to choose from. We care for 130 different types of rhubarb that make up the UK's national collection at Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire.
Harvesting and growing rhubarb
Early varieties of rhubarb
Champagne, a long-stemmed plant that's known for its fine flavour; Grandad's favourite, a thick-stemmed variety; and Reed's early superb, which is a favourite with competitive growers. These varieties are harvested in March or early April.
Late varieties of rhubarb
Victoria is a traditional variety of rhubarb with thick, red-flecked stems. Meanwhile, Stein’s Champagne is known for its deep red sticks and flesh. You can harvest these in late April.
Harvesting and growing rhubarb
Rhubarb can be grown either from seed or rooted plants known as ‘crowns’. The latter method is popular for quicker establishment and harvesting.
Once well established, crowns can be divided during the winter months (usually November) to multiply or share with friends or neighbours.
Taking the stems
When harvesting, sticks should be pulled rather than cut, and no more than half should be taken at a time.
Forced rhubarb plants can be harvested earlier than uncovered ones but should be left uncovered and unpicked after the first harvest to recover. Rhubarb can be forced in Dec or Jan by covering the dormant crowns with straw, an upturned bin or a clay rhubarb pot.