Last week I visited a wonderful gardener who had invited me to view her collection of topiary. She had been cultivating and nurturing it for 16 years. Through the gate and down a rustic path, there, nonchalantly scattered about in her field, amongst giant gums and grazed by sheep (who won’t touch buxus as it’s toxic to stock), were box topiaries in artful groupings like little families or gatherings of friends. They were absolutely charming in this unexpected and natural setting. Mary had clipped them in various shapes over the years as her children grew up but now felt it was time to let them go to another home. “You can’t sell them”, I protested. “They’re like family members! You will miss them if they go.” But no, the artist now in her seventies was tired of the annual pruning and maintenance and wanted to move onto other things. So I am planning to adopt them all, one by one, large and small, and bring them to The Potting Shed for all to enjoy – and to take away to new homes to be admired and loved. The visit emphasised how such a simple process of planting a shrub or tree and adding creativity, can produce such an outstanding result. I’ve featured the Marqueyssac gardens (above and below) in an earlier post, but think it’s worth revisiting appropos this story. Years ago we travelled through the Dordogne region in France but were in those days, unaware of the marvellous gardens of Marqueyssac. What a shame to have been so close but to have missed seeing this spectacle. Next trip we will certainly be adding it to our list.
Above and below: The remarkable gardens surrounding the Château de Marqueyssac in Vézac,France. Classified as a remarkable garden by the French Ministry of Culture, it was built in the 17th century by Bertrand Vernet, counsellor to the king. The original garden was created by a pupil of André Le Nôtre, and featured gardens, terraces, and a kitchen garden surrounding the chateau. A grand promenade one hundred metres long was added at the end of the 18th century. Beginning in 1866, the new owner, Julien de Cerval, who was inspired by Italian gardens, built rustic structures, redesigned the parterres, laid out five kilometres of walks, and planted pines and cypress trees.
Above: Photographer Steve Wooten captures the light and shade of this lovely English garden with it’s topiaried yew in the lawn and a bed of buxus balls.
I love rhubarb. I think it’s very underrated. In my garden it forms little hedges around the vegetable gardens to break the wind and provide shelter for vegetable seedlings. After a searing heatwave, the recent rains have catapulted everything in the garden into life. And the rhubarb was one of the quickest to return. It’s now lush and fat and our delicious, vibrant red variety Ever Red is powering along. It’s always a nice gift to take to friends – just pull off the stems and bind with string or raffia. We have pots of it available at The Potting Shed so if you’d like to add this easycare, delicious fruit to your garden come in and pick up a pot. I’ve included a delicious Rhubarb Chutney below for you to try and I have a friend who makes a delicious Rhubarb Champagne every year for the Christmas season so I will endeavour to get that recipe for you also. Meantime, happy gardening!
Rhubarb (Rheum x cultorum) is one of the few perennial vegetables and will produce tangy, juicy stems season after season. Rhubarb is native to Siberia and the Himalayas and was cultivated for medicinal purposes long before its culinary properties were discovered. Its first appearance in English recipes was well into the 1700’s, taking at least another hundred years to reach popular acceptance. Growing rhubarb is simple and the plants require little maintenance. Rhubarb is grown from fleshy crowns or seed, the crowns being the quickest and easiest method. The crown is a section or divided part of the plant with roots attached. These crowns are found in nurseries during winter to early spring and should be planted in soil improved with some home made compost to give juicier stems. If you have clay soil create raised beds to improve the drainage and if you have sandy soil add a lot of organic matter so that it doesn’t dry out too quickly in summer. Plant the crowns 75 cm to 1 metre apart to allow for large stems and leaf growth. The crown should be planted with the growing point at or just below the soil surface, watered and then mulched with straw. They love well rotted manure but won’t need this immediately, save it until the end of the first growing season, then lavish it on to get them ready for the following spring. Don’t let the plants dry out in summer, keep them well watered, as if the stems get dry they will never get juicy. However, the soil should not become waterlogged.
Plants raised from seed usually take three years before they’re ready for harvesting. Plants from corms can be harvested the first summer or left until the following summer if not quite ready in the first season. When harvesting rhubarb don’t cut the stems, just pull gently from the crown. Never strip a plant of stems totally because this will exhaust them of stems for the next season’s growth. To avoid rhubarb running to seed, avoid light overhead watering. It is best to thoroughly water infrequently. Apply lots of high nitrogen fertiliser in a solid or liquid form in spring to autumn. This will discourage flower growth. If flowers do appear, remove them and take extra care with feeding and watering. Every four or five years dig the plant up and divide the crowns for replanting.
The stems must always be cooked before eating as the raw state is indigestible. The leaves are toxic so never eat them or feed them to your chooks however the leaves are quite safe to add to your compost pile. Some varieties have red stems like Ever Red whilst others have green stems like Victoria. The green stemmed varieties are just as reliable and tasty as the red, but sometimes not as sweet. Rhubarb is low in kilojoules, high in vitamin C and calcium and has a moderate iron and fibre content. It was once used as a mild laxative. Never cook rhubarb in aluminium saucepans as the oxalic acid in the stems dissolves the protective layer normally found on these saucepans, forming a poisonous compound called aluminium oxalate. Stems can be stored for up to five days in the fridge or frozen in small pieces. Before freezing, heat in boiling water for 1 minute, rinse under cold water and drain. Rhubarb can be used in desserts, jams and wines and the leaves can be made into an aphid spray.