Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Rhubarb, The next Superfood


Rhubarb is finding a new lease of life in the modern world. Its popularity has waxed and waned over the years, but its value for medical purposes is extremely high so it is undergoing scientific research all over the world for a host of uses. It is also valued for its culinary uses in stews, jams, crumbles, compote and chutneys. It is a very healthy food being high in anti-oxidants, calcium and potassium and as scientists are finding out it releases high levels of polyphenols when baked and stewed, and these may have a beneficial effect against some cancers.
These are early days as research is ongoing, but it does seem that our humble rhubarb may well become a very important superfood, and just as important is the fact that it does make a delicious jam, an exotic stew and a crumble to die for.


Rhubarb has been in use for thousands of years though mainly as a medicinal drug. The Chinese dried the roots, which are cathartic and astringent, for use as a laxative and other ailments.
Other rhubarb species were found in Mongolia, Tibet and Siberia, but did not possess the same medicinal properties as the Chinese species. The Greeks and Romans imported it from China for   medicinal uses, then in the thirteenth century the explorer Marco Polo brought it back to Britain from China as it was highly valued as a drug.
It was not until the early nineteenth century that it was used for culinary purposes. A south London nurseryman and strawberry grower was looking for ways to use the new imported product sugar. Rhubarb stems were a waste byproduct from the rhubarb drug trade, but he discovered that they could make a delicious sweet tart just as popular as his strawberry tarts. He found a new market and the rhubarb we now know took off.
It was very easy to grow so soon became very popular in every garden as a readily available food
known as the poor mans fruit amongst the working classes.
In 1817 in the Chelsea Physic Gardens some roots were accidentally covered over with soil. Several weeks later they discovered the tender bright red blanched stems that had a superior flavour to the outdoor rhubarb, and so an industry in forcing rhubarb started initially around London.
Later a new rhubarb industry emerged in Yorkshire known as the rhubarb triangle from Leeds and Wakefield to Bradford. They had the best clay soils, a woollen industry to supply shoddy, an organic manure, a coal industry to supply cheap heating for the forcing sheds and a road and rail network to get the product to markets quickly. They also claim the superior flavour comes from their Yorkshire water, just as our whisky industry in Scotland relies on our pure highland burns.
During the last war its popularity faded as sugar imports were very restricted, but as countries recovered, it had a brief resurgence until cheap travel allowed the import of fresh new tropical fruit from all over the world. Rhubarb just could not compete.
However we are now turning full circle as food hygienists discover just how healthy rhubarb is. Almost every allotment plot holder now has his patch of rhubarb and demand is very strong as people are now very keen to live a healthy lifestyle.


Rhubarb roots and stems are high in anthraquinones, especially emodin and rhein, with both cathartic and laxative properties, and cooked stems have high levels of polyphenols, an anti cancer chemical. The roots also contain stilbenoid compounds useful in lowering blood sugar levels.
Research with rhubarb properties is covering gastric cancer, leukaemia, improvements to blood clotting, and reducing hypertension during pregnancy.
The high fibre content may help some people with high cholesterol levels. Some extracts appear to have anti-inflammatory and anti-allergy affects.
However the leaves are very toxic as they contain oxalic acid, so must never be eaten, but are perfect on the compost heap.
Ongoing worldwide research is covering a vast area of medical problems.


Rhubarb grows best on well drained but moisture retentive clay soils that have been well manured and deeply cultivated. They love moisture, heavy feeding and regular picking to encourage new leaves to continue to form. In mid summer any glut can be cut and stored in the freezer.
Crowns with two or three buds are planted out in winter about three feet apart in well prepared soil.  They are usually planted in odd shady corners but actually grow better in full sun. Do not pick off any leaves in the first year. They will then grow and crop for up to five years before needing dug up, split up and replanted.
Timperley Early is the earliest variety, Stockbridge Arrow and Queen Victoria follow on and then Cawood Delight is a late but with the best deep red stems.


It is easy to extend the season by forcing some roots every year. Rhubarb needs a cold dormant period in winter to rest, so dig up mature roots after  three to five years old in mid to late winter and place them somewhere in warm darkness. Keep them moist, but don’t water the stems otherwise they could rot. I use a space adjacent to my new compost heap which is warm, but another excellent spot is under the greenhouse staging with light excluded with black polythene. Sticks are ready for picking in four to six weeks. Always twist and pull them, do not cut them off.
When the crop is finished put the old crowns on the compost heap as they will be spent.


Rhubarb crumble, pies and tarts are most peoples favourite and stewed rhubarb with custard is heavenly, but these are well established so need no further mention.
However try rhubarb and fig jam. It is fantastic and so different from the normal traditional jams.
Then extend the recipes with a compote of rhubarb and blackcurrants or rhubarb and strawberries in the ratio of three times rhubarb to one portion of blackcurrants or strawberries. This compote can be used with breakfast muesli, or with desserts in custards, yoghurt or as a sauce with a dessert sponge, cake or tart.


Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Winter Work Never Ends


We seem to be going through a hard spell for any keen gardener.  Last autumn came late and before I had a chance to gather up all the leaves the winter arrived and dumped at least two feet of snow everywhere. Many weeks later the snow melted very reluctantly, but there has been no warm sunny days to dry up the soil surface to allow digging, or other outdoor activities to proceed.
Any outdoor gardening tasks have to be planned in advance with an eye on the weather to take every opportunity to get outside if there is a few hours of dry weather.
The severe cold has taken its toll on a few plants, with my Fuchsia Mrs Popple really looking lifeless right down to ground level. She did that last year, but grew back up again from the crown. However, my palm tree, Cordyline australis has been dropping a lot of leaves and my Date palm, Phoenix canariensis, which just survived last winter looks deathly.
A garden is full of extremes as the hardier plants show their ability to survive. Aconites have started to germinate from natural scattered seeds and my Saskatoon seeds which I had to put in the cold greenhouse to keep them away from mice have also started to germinate.

The first flowers

My first snowdrops have appeared just as soon as the snow melted. It is very welcome to see the beginning of life in the garden. Aconites, Hellebores and the crocus species are all showing a bit of colour with the promise that they will open up their blooms as soon as we get a few warmer days.

Winter vegetables

The allotment has continued to provide a good supply of winter vegetables including Swedes, savoy cabbage, brussels sprouts, my last parsnip and leeks. The cold put paid to my Swiss chard and kale which I will miss in my stir fries, but I have just learnt that chopped up brussels sprouts are a very useful addition to the stir fry wok. I just have enough beetroot left for one more pot of soup, but I am amazed that they have survived unharmed underneath their blanket of snow for so long.
Onions in store are still quite firm, but all our eating apples are finished. Bramley apples stored in apple boxes in a cold garage are still very plentiful and used frequently for crumbles, sauces and pies. Any second rate apples are chopped up and simmered slowly to soften  then strained in a jelly bag to make pectin. This is used to help set strawberry, saskatoon, and apricot jams. Any other apples beginning to look not at their best are chopped up for the blackbirds.
Our last stored pumpkin will be kept a few more weeks before the soup pot comes out. I will also retain the seeds for this years pumpkin plants.

Freezer foods

The idea of a freezer is that you can have a wide range fresh fruit and vegetables all year round and to supplement any meagre winter supplies from outdoors. We have had such good outdoor crops that we are not making any serious impact to the stored crops other than to give meals some variety.
French beans, sweet corn, kale, pumpkin puree and every soft fruit grown are still ready in abundance. Jams and compote are used daily and Saskatoon pies for special occasions.
Aronias are used for jam and smoothies.
There is an awful lot to be said for growing your own fruit and vegetables. They are harvested when ripe and often eaten within minutes of picking. The flavour is intense, they have been grown without any harmful pesticides and there has been precious little air miles used up bringing them to the kitchen table.
The freezer allows us a fair bit of our fresh crops to be tasted out of season. This is a very healthy option. We get the exercise from cultivating and growing them, fresh air, sunshine, (as well as wind, rain and snow) and allotment life is a very sociable pastime.
We may not get a lot of crops out of season, but do we really want them?
I was enjoying my Scottish grapes from August to December when the last of the Black Hamburgs finally disappeared. Naturally grapes from the supermarket replaced my own crop. I then realized just how good my own grapes were compared to those imported grapes which were rather tasteless and neither juicy nor as sweet as my Scottish ripened grapes.
It is the same with tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, brambles and raspberries from every corner of the globe. They may look perfect, but try eating these hard, tasteless and not very sweet berries with no guarantee about which pesticides were used in their production.
Getting an allotment is the healthiest option.

Early sowings

Sweet peas sown two weeks ago are now through but I will grow them hardy in the cold greenhouse. Now is the time to sow onions and tomatoes. I grow my tomatoes on a windowsill for a few weeks hoping to transfer them to the greenhouse during a mild spell, but getting ready with some supplementary heating on any cold nights.

Soil cultivation

Continue with spreading manure and compost and getting it dug in as long as the ground is dry enough to work.

Pruning and shredding

Pruning has continued with the peach tree, roses, fuchsias, apples and pears. To make room for my new dwarf Cherry Cherokee and outdoor grape Solaris on a south facing fence, I am removing a mature Pyracantha and some shrub roses.
Many other garden shrubs are getting a prune to keep them in shape, remove old wood, overcrowded or weak shoots and encourage younger wood and flowers.
All of my prunings will get shredded and added to the compost heap. These get mixed with autumn leaves, grass cuttings, kitchen vegetable waste, old bedding plants and compost from hanging baskets, and growbags.
The compost heap will get turned at least once, or twice if I can find the energy. It is very hard work, but very helpful in producing brilliant compost. This will be ready in about  nine months.


Wednesday, 9 February 2011



My first gardening memory from childhood involved roses. It was one of those unforgettable experiences, even for a four year old. My grannie, bless her soul, sent me, complete with bucket and shovel, up Harestane Road running after the grocer’s cart, knowing that at some stage his horse would do what horses have always done whether in a field or in the street. This was an opportunity not to be missed as she had a border of hybrid tea roses that would soon be the envy of her neighbours after this tousled haired laddie struggled back with his steaming bucket.
My first gardening lesson, roses are gross feeders and a perfect rose may involve a lot of hard work but the rewards can be immense.
My horticultural career took me all over Britain and every new house came with a garden that just had to have roses somewhere. A garden for me would not be complete if there were no roses.
Hybrid Teas and floribundas can go in beds and borders, shrub roses can provide shelter and privacy and ramblers and climbers can go on walls and fences. You can even get varieties suitable for ground cover.

My first roses

I had always been very ambitious and keen to learn my craft and rose growing was at the top of my list, but they were very expensive to buy on an apprentice’s pay. It was easier for me to join the Royal National Rose Society who then gave you a book on rose growing, varieties and propagation. I ordered 100 Rosa canina briers and decided I would bud my own roses. I only had a broken pen knife to perform my budding, but the book was good and I managed to get 82 roses from my 100 rootstocks.
At college in Essex I did a dissertation on rose rootstocks discovering that Rosa canina was out of favour as it produced suckers too readily and now the favoured rootstock was Rosa laxa. Someone down south was also experimenting with Rosa multiflora rootstock which proved to be superior to all the others, but was not commercial on account of having a small neck which was difficult and slow to bud. However I had all the time in the world so I got hold of these and produced my best roses ever.
It is now difficult for the amateur gardener to get hold of rose rootstocks as they are mostly grown in Holland, so we can propagate our roses from hardwood cuttings.  They are fairly easy to root. I covered this topic two weeks ago, but you can still see it on my blog, the Scottish artist and his where I archive all my articles.

Rose varieties

Specialist rose nurseries in Scotland, England and Ireland have been breeding new roses for years so there is no lack of choice. In the early years there was an emphasis on producing floribundas, then trying to get floribundas with hybrid tea type flowers. There has always been a demand for a good red rose with scent, a strong head and several flowers per stem. E. H. Morse is hard to beat,  but other colours proved to be a bigger challenge. Bicolours became popular such as Piccadilly, then the vermillion colour appeared with Super Star many years ago. There are now excellent varieties to be found in just about every colour.
We are now in a different environment with sulphur free clean air better for humans, but also better for all the main rose diseases. Most of the chemicals previously used to control rose diseases have now been withdrawn. Breeders need to concentrate on strength and disease resistance in rose breeding so we can grow good roses without the need for chemicals.
However we are not there yet as I see many varieties still listed as disease free which I have had to grub out due to debilitating attacks of blackspot. Both shrub L D Braithwaite and climber Golden Showers have had the chop due to die back after a blackspot attack. Margaret Merril is a lovely white scented rose that is great early in the season until mildew gets a hold, then it struggles badly.
Every one will have their favourites, so my choice is purely down to what gives my garden the biggest splash of colour.
E H Morse is my best red, Dearest, a floribunda my best pink, Miriam my best white with a pink blush.
I have grown many shrub types and now use some of them on walls and fences as climbers. Dublin Bay is a brilliant red, but has no scent unlike Gertrude Jekyll, a deep pink with the Old English rose scent. If you need a very vigorous climber, the old variety Mme Alfred Carriere, introduced in 1879, is very reliable and puts on a spectacular show of off white scented flowers all summer.

Rose Planting

Roses thrive in well manured clay loams. It is a good practice to double dig any area to be planted with roses to break up the subsoil, aerate it, improve the drainage and incorporate manure or compost. When digging deep do not bring up any clay to the surface.
Climbers planted against a house wall will need removal of any builder’s debris and replaced with some good top soil. Work carefully as there may be services going into your property. Break up any consolidated hardcore below planting depth as the plant will be very happy to grow through this and still thrive.
Planting bare root plants can be done from November to the end of March, though nowadays it is more usual to purchase container grown plants that can be planted at any time. Make sure all bushes are given a good soak before and at planting to get them off to a good start.
Give the bed a dressing of a general fertilizer as roses are gross feeders and will respond to feeding.
Spacing can be as close as 18 inches for dwarf bushes or six to ten feet or more for climbers and ramblers.

Rose pruning

Hybrid tea and floribunda roses are pruned in the dormant season from late November to mid March, though with global warming this period is getting shorter.
Start by removing weak shoots, dead snags and any shoots growing up the centre. Providing there is several strong young shoots remove some older branches. Finally prune the young shoots to an outward growing bud about six to twelve inches from the ground.
Roses can be relied on to recover from bad pruning. If you prune them very lightly they will just grow into a larger bush but still flower perfectly well. If you prune them too hard you will keep the bushes smaller, but you could kill a weak variety.
Back in the mists of time I had a three month rose pruning session covering the north west of Dundee open spaces. Roses were at the height of their popularity and all local authorities crammed them into every available space. There was no time for any finesse, forget secateurs, this was a hand shear job cutting every bed to two feet from ground level. Although I was armed with my copy of “How to grow roses” from the Royal National Rose Society my knowledge from the book got me no Brownie points, so I had to do as I was told
That summer I went back to check on all my mutilated rose beds. They were all fantastic, full of flower. We should have won Britain in Bloom. I nearly threw away my book.
Roses are very tough, they can take a lot of ill treatment and still come back with glorious colour.

Shrub roses need very little pruning, only enough to prevent them getting too straggly.

Rambling roses flower on long shoots produced the previous year, so after flowering remove the older shoots right back to the base and tie in the new young shoots. These will flower the next year.

Climbing roses flower the same as bush roses, but produce longer shoots. These are used to form a framework of both young and older branches. However keep the plant rejuvenated by removing some of the older shoots every year. Make sure there is always some young wood around the base so the climber can flower from top to bottom. If the shoots are quite long try arching them horizontally to reduce upwards vigour and encourage flowering.


Wednesday, 2 February 2011



 It is hard to think of any other vegetable that has had a major impact on the British way of life than the humble potato. It is eaten by most people daily as boiled, mashed, baked, as a salad or as chips.
It is a great source of food health and its cultivation gives us immense exercise.
It is a major farm crop in Scotland for both ware and seed potato production. It was even responsible for providing us with extra holidays during the tattie fortnight when school kids were granted time off from studies to help the farmers bring in the harvest. Although they are now all harvested by machines, the holiday period is still enjoyed by most people.
Howking tatties is still remembered by an older generation as a chance to escape from the housing estate to the fresh air of the country and earn a wee bit extra money. The autumn was usually cold but sunny, and it was never too wet. The work was very hard and that digger always seemed to appear just as you finished picking your bit and before you got a chance for a breather. The bonus was the beauty of the farming countryside and that bag of spuds that went unnoticed as it followed you home.
It was a way of life for many years, but nowadays it is all done by machinery and none disappears off site under the arms of a tired but happy picker.


Potatoes were grown in South America in Peru 8000 years ago, but it was not till the middle of the 16th century that explorers discovered them and brought them back to Europe. At first they arrived in Spain then years later to Britain and Ireland though at this time there potential was not realized. The potato, Solanum tuberosum was still only of interest to botanists and herbalists.
Major changes to land use, industrialization and expansion of towns brought in a need for something easy to grow to feed the population. Potatoes were easy to grow, store, cook and transport. The Irish peasants took up their culture in the 17th century followed by England in the 18th century, appearing in fields, gardens and allotments. Scotland was slow to accept them at first as devout Scottish Presbyterians refused to eat them as they were not mentioned in the bible. Around the world they were thought off as unclean, linked to witches and the French thought they caused leprosy.
Soon populations in both Scotland and Ireland desperately depended on the potato for their sustenance, but then disaster struck when the climate changed to a wetter regime in 1845 and 1846. Potato blight thrived in the wet weather ruining the crops and leading to severe famine. The population had no choice other than to leave or face death by starvation.
Today plant breeders are still working on developing new strains of potatoes that have resistance to potato blight caused by the fungus, Phytophthora infestans. It can still seriously affect late and maincrop potatoes but earlies are often harvested before the disease can get a hold.
Potatoes are now a major food crop all over the world from Britain to USA, India and especially China.


To grow good crops of potatoes consistently every year it is necessary to be aware of the range of pests and diseases that can seriously affect yields and do everything possible to minimize the risk.
Start off by purchasing seed tubers only from Scottish or Irish sources where very strict hygiene conditions ensure the crop is clean and gets the highest certification. This information will be shown on labels on all bags purchased.
Farmers work under surveillance with plant inspectors so the crops are well rotated and always on land tested to be clean if the crop is for certified seed production. Gardeners and allotment holders should practice a four year rotation and make sure any ground keepers are removed immediately they appear. If you are tempted to retain seed potatoes from your own healthy crop, only do so for one year and only if the crop was very clean and free from blight and any other pest or disease. Never accept seed potatoes from a friend as the risks of potential infections are too great.
Potatoes are heavy feeders so grow best on land that has been well manured in autumn and left rough over winter.
It is a good practice to chit early varieties as it gives them a head start. Place the seed potatoes upright, (rose end upwards) in trays or egg boxes and leave in a light frost free position for a few weeks to get them to sprout. Some tubers may produce numerous sprouts. The smaller ones can be removed to leave two or three. This reduces the crop slightly but gives bigger potatoes.
Planting time is very much depending on weather, so in a mild period it could be the end of February, otherwise as soon as you feel there is some warmth in the ground in March.
Earlies are spaced about 12 inches apart along the rows which are 18 inches apart. For maincrops increase the spacing to 15 inches apart with rows 2 to 2.5 feet apart.
Take out a furrow six inches deep and run some well rotted compost along the bottom. Cover this with some soil and plant into this. Cover the rows but leave a slight ridge to mark the line.
Potato fertilizer high in phosphates and potassium, may be added during the covering of the tubers, but don’t allow direct contact with the tuber.
Growing on
Once the foliage emerges keep an eye on the weather and if frost threatens earth over to protect them. Continue to earth over as this kills weeds and creates a friable structure that potatoes love to grow in.
Hopefully earlies will escape blight, but watch out for blight on maincrops if wet weather predominates. You can protect the foliage with spays of Bordeaux mixture, but if rain keeps washing it off it may be better (if the crop is sufficiently advanced) to cut off and remove the foliage, but leave the crop a few more weeks to mature.
Lifting can begin at the end of June with first earlies and continue till October for lates. Lift on a sunny day and leave the spuds to dry on the surface for an hour or so. Discard any tubers that show any greening as this contains poisons. Potatoes are best stored in the dark in hessian or paper bags in a frost free shed protected from mice. They can also be stored in the ground bedded on and covered with straw, then protected with a layer of soil.

New Spuds for Christmas

This is becoming a very popular activity to achieve fresh new potatoes for the Christmas table. Order some late stored tubers of an early variety ready for planting in June or July. Give them the best growing conditions, or in barrels, containers or growbags as they do not have a long season left to grow. Keep them watered and fed then as soon as autumn comes and the foliage dies off remove it and just leave them where they are. Do not give any more water and they will store perfectly where they are until Christmas, provided we don’t get any more early severe frosts.


There are very many varieties to choose from in every category from first early to late and new ones appear every year. Personal likes also decide whether you like a dry, waxy or floury texture. Some have a strong flavour whereas others can be very bland. It is impossible for anyone to recommend the best range as they are all very different and personal. Read the catalogues, talk to other growers, then make your choice. Try out a new variety every year.

Research at the Scottish Crops Research Institute and many other places is looking at increasing  vitamin C content and improving disease resistance, especially late blight, but also a host of others including blackleg, brown rot, ring rot and wart disease. The main pests under the microscope is the potato cyst nematode and free living nematodes. There is concern about disease in European potatoes which are being prohibited entry as seed crops but can be brought in as laboratory grown micro plants.

Glendoick Garden Centre will be holding a Potato Weekend on Saturday 5th and Sunday 6th February with potato grower and expert Alan Romans giving advice. They will be showing some of the Heritage varieties including Bonnie Dundee, Salad Blue and Shetland Black.