Ron Kujawski | Garden Journal: Despite weather, rhubarb can be divided, replanted

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The cold and damp weather of March and April has deterred most gardeners from venturing into their gardens as soils have remained excessively moist, if not covered by snow. Even with the brief warm up of the past few days, most garden soils are not yet workable. Certainly, digging and planting are not advisable. However, I'd make one exception to that bit of counsel, and that is with respect to rhubarb. Considering that the origins of rhubarb have been traced to the frigid climes of Mongolia and Siberia, it is not surprising that no harm should come to this plant if dug, divided and replanted at this time.

During my youth in the farm country of upstate New York, a rhubarb plant or two, or three or four, could be found in every yard. Rhubarb pies and rhubarb sauce were as common on the dessert table as apple pie and applesauce, if not more so. Though interest in rhubarb faded somewhat for many years, there recently seems to be resurgence. Just in the past year, several friends have asked for divisions from my plants. I was happy to oblige as my plants, undisturbed for several decades, probably appreciated the rejuvenating effect of division.

To divide rhubarb now, dig down about 6 inches deep around the root mass. Be aware that old rhubarb plants will have large, gnarly, woody-like roots. Once out of the ground, it will take a sharp knife or a hatchet to split the root into pieces, each with at least one bud, preferably two or more buds per piece. If there are shriveled remnants of last year's stems, simply pull or cut these off. The divisions should be planted as soon as possible to prevent drying. If the pieces of root are small and with only one bud, a few may be placed in the same hole. The top of each division should be no more than an inch or two below ground level after being covered with soil. I like to work some compost or aged manure into the hole before planting the divisions.

If the roots cannot be replanted soon after being dug up and divided, store them in a plastic bag in the fridge, but rehydrate them in room temperature water for a few hours before planting.

The late British journalist Miles Kington once said: "Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad." I suppose it could also be said that "Knowledge is knowing that rhubarb is a vegetable, wisdom is not putting it in a vegetable salad."

TO-DO LIST

Knowledge is also knowing that this is a good time to pick up the pace of your gardening tasks.

- Build a raised bed or two, even if you have a vegetable garden. Soil in raised beds drains more quickly and warm up faster than garden soils. This allows you to get an early start on many crops, especially leafy greens and root crops.

- Start some vegetable crops in containers if you're anxious to get some crops growing. Carrots, beets, leaf lettuce, spinach and green onions are some cold-hardy vegetables that can be planted now and will thrive in patio pots or other containers.

- Make a plan for using annuals in the landscape. Peruse seed catalogs for ideas and information on various annuals. Having a plan in hand will help when shopping for seeds and seedlings of annuals at your local garden center.

- Sow seeds of bachelor's buttons, calendula, cleome, dianthus, larkspur, nigella, snapdragons, heliotrope and sweet peas as soon as the soil can be worked. These annual flowers are very hardy and will withstand frosty temperatures. Save some of the seeds and make a note to sow them in late fall just before the ground freezes. They'll germinate early next spring.

- Apply horticultural oil to fruit and ornamental trees that had mite, aphid and/or scale problems last year. Carefully follow label directions for applying the oil.

- Be aware that deer ticks are now active. These ticks carry a variety of serious diseases, including Lyme disease and ehrlichiosis. Take precautions when working outdoors. Apply tick repellents, such as those containing either DEET or permethrin, as per directions on the product label. The ticks are in the adult stage now and are easier to spot than they will be in May when in the nymph stage.

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