Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Bare Root Strawberries and a Rhubarb Crown: Mail Order Gardening

The King of Spring Wears a Rhubarb Crown

Funny things happen when you get older, and one of them is you get nostalgic for things.  I was having tea with some of my friends and we started talking about things you can't seem to get anymore (in urban areas) and the talk turned to rhubarb.  We all missed it, and none of us had ever seen it in the Farmers' Market.  Hmm, I thought, why not grow some?

When I visited the Seed Bank in Petaluma, I found rhubarb seeds!  I snagged a packet, and when I got home, did a little research.  Hmm, it takes about 3 years for rhubarb grown from seed to be established enough that you can harvest from it.  But if you get a rhubarb crown, you can harvest rhubarb in two years.

I did a little more research and discovered that rhubarb likes colder winters and less hot summers, and it's usually listed as growing in Zones 4 - 8,  rather than our Bay Area 9's and 10's.   I queried the Master Gardeners of Santa Clara county and found that a number of them were growing rhubarb-- usually the green stemmed "Victoria".  At one point they had done a set of trial plantings of rhubarb, and found that variety, and another green-stem, "Glaskin's Perpetual",  to do best.  However, at least one responder complained that Victoria didn't seem to have that true tart rhubarb flavor (and deep red stalks!) that she remembered and loved.  A variety called "MacDonald", which didn't do as well as "Victoria", had the best flavor and the red color.

Well, I'm all about the flavor, so I started looking for "MacDonald".  I found it at a specialty grower, and was all set to order it, and their website refused to sell it to me once it knew my location in Zone 9.  Sigh.  Too helpful!!   I did a little more research and found that "MacDonald" was developed from "Crimson", so I went looking for "Crimson".   I found it and took the option of ordering the extra large crown which would establish faster-- cut maybe ONE STALK just to prove to yourself it's working in the first year, but you can harvest in the second year on the super crown.

Here's the crown in my gloved hand for scale:

They say it can be hard to tell which end to point up when planting a rhubarb crown, but this one was pretty obvious-- the nub at the top had bright red peeping out of it behind that brownish-yellow fuzz.  Gurney's provided a helpful pamphlet with planting instructions for all sorts of things, including the rhubarb, but I checked the internet just in case.  Everybody agreed, put the bud about 4 inches below the surface of the soil.  Check!

Rhubarb can spread like crazy, and a typical patch can get 3 or 4 feet across.  I didn't want THAT much rhubarb, given I have a small backyard set of raised beds, so I chose to plant my rhubarb crown in a container.  I have some large self-watering planters that I usually grow eggplants in, and decided to dedicate one to rhubarb.   I thought about using the plastic half wine barrel, but thought I might not have enough potting soil to fill it, so I went for the smaller container.  If the rhubarb seems cramped, I can always move it to the half wine barrel in the winter.

(I didn't take a picture of the rhubarb planted, because there's nothing to see but dirt!)

Strawberries in the Mail!

I lost my small planter of everbearing strawberries a few years ago to a watering oops, and have missed them ever since.  I had 8 or so Quinault everbearing plants in a big blue shallow bowl, as you can see below-- enough to get several ripe berries at at time as a gardening reward.   Strawberries can thrive in a container only about 6 inches deep, as long as they are kept well watered.  When I saw bare-root strawberries pop up as I was finishing ordering my rhubarb crown, I couldn't resist.  Impulse buy!  (That never happens to gardeners!)

I knew I wanted everbearing strawberries, not June-bearing-- the latter bear a heavy crop and then stop producing, whereas everbearing strawberries will produce small crops of berries all summer.  I'd rather eat my berries fresh by the small handful than get a quart or two and have to freeze them or make jam.

I was very intrigued by the description of Mara des Bois, a French hybrid that was introduced back in 2011 or so to the States.  "Sugary sweet, bursting with flavor, juicy, red, ... and perfectly shaped" stated a Dave's Garden blogpost, and I was hooked.  I ordered a pack of Gurney's 10 bare-root Mara des Bois, at $16.99.  If I'd looked a little further online, I would have seen Burpee's 25-pack of Mara des Bois for $19.99, but that would have meant two planters and some spares.  Oh well, live and learn!

I'd forgotten how small bare-root strawberry plants are-- I saw this baggie and thought, "where are my plants?!"  And there they are, below, a seeming tangle of dried up plant.  Fortunately, the crowns themselves were still moist and healthy, and the roots really weren't tangled at all-- the plants separated easily once I removed the elastic bundling them together.  Note the green leaves at the crowns of some of the plants!

Instead of a bowl planter that would need frequent hand watering, I chose to put the strawberries in one of my long white planters with a small water reservoir base.  As you can see, there is a layer of screening in the bottom, with about a 2-inch reservoir below it.  This planter will hang on the sunny fence by the BBQ, and have a line of drip irrigation run across it.  The berries will be at eye level, easy to pick and (I hope) safe from marauding snails.

I realize in retrospect that I probably should have spread the roots out as I planted the strawberries.  It was getting dark, and raining, and I knew I wouldn't be able to plant them for several days if I didn't do it tonight (traveling this weekend).   We'll see how they do with their roots mostly going straight down.  The most important thing, which I did remember, is to make sure the crown is above the soil line-- otherwise they will rot.

Now that they are watered, which washed the dirt off the crowns, I can see quite a bit of green there.  I'm eager to see how they do, and will post updates as the plants begin to grow!


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