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‘Tis the season to process rhubarb like crazy!

A mild winter and a wet spring have combined to give us an early start to the growing season in our part of the world. It’s late May, but looks like late June out there: the daylilies are hours from blooming, the gladioli are two feet tall, and the Columbine have been in flower for a couple of weeks. Likewise, the rhubarb stems are thick, very high, and rosy, so I’ve been trying to keep it picked so the bottom-most stems don’t rot from lack of light and space.

Irish cooking

The Rhubarb Patch

I compared notes with some Irish gardeners I know, and heard tales of woe and wet weather, so I gather we’re lucky to be enjoying fine growing weather — in fairness, we often get frost into mid-May, so this year is unusual. I’ve always consider rhubarb a typical staple of Irish gardens, as my parents and grandparents grew it when we were kids, and rhubarb crumbles were a sure taste of summer.

Rhubarb is one of the simplest fruits/vegetables (the jury seems to be out on where rhubarb stands — grown like a vegetable, served as a fruit) to grow, but people seem to not know what to do with it. I’ve introduced many to its distinctive tartness over the years. I remember our family grew it in a bed by a hedge, and the mossy grass had taken over the ground so that my father mowed right up to the stalks themselves. It was a very easy plant to care for, and I doubt they even bothered to divide it every few years.

 

Irish Rhubarb/Strawberry Crumble Recipe

This is my favorite rhubarb recipe, and one that I’ve amended over the years to incorporate local ingredients.

 

1.5 – 2 lbs of stewed rhubarb

1.5-2 lbs of strawberries (fresh or frozen)

¾ cup sugar

¾ cup wholewheat flour

¾ cup rolled oats

½ cup walnuts or pecans (chopped fine)

1 stick of butter

 

The filling is simple: in a pie dish or small roasting pan (depending on how large a crumble you need) mix up the stewed rhubarb and strawberries. To my taste, a 50/50 ratio of rhubarb to strawberries should make the crumble sweet enough, others may want to add sugar to cut the tartness (but no more than ¼ cup).

* You can replace strawberries with any other sweet fruit (whatever’s in season).

A traditional Irish crumble usually has a pastry pie shell on the bottom and is topped with the crumbly mixture. However, somewhere in the anti-carb ‘90s I stopped including the pastry bottom, and now I just think of it as needless calories. The crumble topping is simply equal parts granulated sugar, steel-cut oats, whatever kind of flour you like, and butter.  Bring the butter to room temp, and rub it into the combined sugar/flour mixture until the mix crumbles nicely between the fingers. (If you have a thick dough, you’ve used too much butter. Cut with equal parts sugar and flour until it crumbles nicely.) Apologies that this isn’t more precise, but the best Irish recipes are always “a bit of this, and the bit of that…” “How much, Mum?” “Ah, sure you know yourself.”

My other non-traditional innovation is to add about ½ cup finely chopped walnuts (or pecans if you have them — we’re in the US South, so they’re plentiful) to the crumble topping. It tastes great, and adds some protein.

Spread the crumble topping over the fruit, make a small “well” or two to allow the juices to bubble up, and cook in a pre-heated over for about 45 minutes at 350 degrees F (or until the crumble topping starts to brown).

Serve with custard or ice cream.

 

How to Stew Rhubarb

Irish CultureWash and chop the stems. Discard the bottom two inches and the leaves, as these are inedible (the leaves are poisonous, containing oxalic acid). Add a tiny bit of water to prevent the rhubarb sticking to the bottom of a thick-bottomed saucepan, but not much as the stems contain plenty of water, which will be released as they cook. How long and how much you stew them depends on personal taste. I like my rhubarb to remain chunky, but most people seem to prefer a uniform apple-sauce like consistency, so I aim for something mid-way between these extremes.

Stir often to prevent sticking, and either freeze in small batches or use soon after cooking. Stewed rhubarb is a great addition to muffins, so I like to keep some in the freezer throughout the year, as our youngest loves to cook muffins to bring to school.

Anybody got any other good rhubarb recipes to share?

Is it just me, or is this early summer so many of us in the northern hemisphere seem to be experiencing proceeding at an accelerated rate? The yellow has quickly faded from my garden; the daffodils are already gone, the forsythia is dropping the last of its petals today, and the Jasmine (or yellow bells as some of my NC neighbors call it) bloomed way back at New Years, was nipped by frost, and is gone. The tulips are abundant this week, but will surely be gone by Easter. Last week I noticed the swelling buds in the crab apple that towers above the raspberry patch and thought “that’ll be beautiful for our Easter Egg hunt in two weekends.” Yesterday it was in full bloom, and today the pink petals are already drifting slowly down. They’ll probably be gone by the end of the weekend. Same with the azalea by the back door. I thought it would be brilliant with color in a week or two, but it’s opening now. Hopefully it’ll still be in bloom in two weeks.

Crab Apple in bloom. The camera doesn't really do justice to the vibrant reddish pink of the petals.

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Azalea and Geranium. The colors come through better in this as the sun was shining at the time.

Maybe I just feel I’m missing things because I’m cooped up with a broken toe that’s making it surprisingly uncomfortable to take care of garden chores? Working indoors and hearing the birdsong and seeing the glorious days that are in it is not any sort of substitute to being out there getting the hands dirty, planting, pruning, and doing all the other small tasks that become pleasure when accompanied by the constant buzzing of the bees, quick flits of birds scoring nest-building materials or nabbing a careless worm from a freshly watered vege bed (or maybe the pleasure lies in the absence of a clicking keyboard and the ping of incoming emails?). For extra comedy value, our cat is now sporting a cast on his leg after somehow dislocating his ankle a few days ago. (My suspicion is he pursued one of his mortal-enemy squirrels up a tree and landed awkwardly afterwards.) Now he’s cooped up in the bathroom so he doesn’t make the injury worse trying to be his usual big bad self. At least we’re company in our mutual grumpiness.

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The unhappy Capt. Jack

While I’m less mobile, I’ve been reading about the early burial practices of the megalithic tombs builders in Ireland, and learning about what they considered precious objects to inhume with the ashes of their dead: very practical things (pestle stones, bone pins, and pottery jars). I’ve also been gardening vicariously through some wonderful blogs (Arigna Gardener and A Place in the Country are top-notch), and picking away at the plot holes of my novel-in-progress. (Lest you think I am able to amuse myself all the time, I will comment that my day job has also been fairly intense lately. There’s a stack of new manuscripts to read for the books we’re publishing in the fall, marketing copy to write, and I’ve been finalizing summer events for our authors up and down the country.)

Actually, it occurs to me that my work may also be contributing to this sense that things are progressing very quickly this year. Working in publishing is a slightly disorienting experience because we work on books that won’t come out for 6-9 months, and by the time they’re arriving on bookstore shelves, we’ve shifted our focus to the next batch another 6-7 months hence. Right now I’m planning events for this October and November, and have actually pitched several things for summer 2013. No wonder time seems to be slipping by at a fast clip.

Maybe that’s why I relax through gardening? It grounds me in the now, in the dirt. Does this plant need water? Do I need to weed, fertilize, mulch, or divide? What’s ready to pick today? All this resting, icing and elevating my foot is keeping me indoors too much, and I’m feeling a little out of touch with the now. Maybe the solution is simply to take one of those manuscripts out into the sun and find a good spot to get some work done?

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Peonies emerging

‘Tis the season to scratch your head and wonder “What the Hell is that?” Seriously, I look to see if the peonies are coming up yet (they are) and some interesting looking red stem with palm-like leaves (mystery plant #1, below) is coming up right beside it. At first I thought it was another peony, but now that both are getting taller I can see they’re completely different structurally. The peonies are much thicker and greener, the mystery plant is very thin and bright red.

Mystery plant #1

It’s like this all over the garden. Plants I know, plants I can put a name to and remember when I planted them, are right where they should be (if a little early — thank you unseasonably warm weather), and weird, random things are sprouting alongside.

If anyone recognizes any of these volunteers, please leave an ID or guess in the comments. If not, I’ll post more pix in a month or so when we’ll have more growth and maybe some blooms.

Mystery plant #2

Mystery plant #2 seems way too small to be wild primrose, which seems to grow to about 4-5 feet around here, although the leaves look similar.  It over-wintered as a very small plant, then put on a quick burst of growth and bloomed a few days ago.  Could easily be a seed dropped by a bird, or something blown in from a neighbor?

Mystery plant #3

Mystery plant #3 is tiny so far, but growing rapidly in full sun. It could be something that hitched a ride in the compost I put down in this area (which came from a cold pile, so some seeds may not have been killed off — a pepper, maybe?) or a refugee from some unsuccessful pack of seeds. Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell what’s deliberately planted and what isn’t because some seeds take such a long time to germinate. Right now there are columbine coming up all over the place because I planted seeds two years ago, and nothing came up last year. I planted some again, and I suspect the seedlings that I’m seeing now are the result of the first batch of seeds.

 

Mystery plant #4

Mystery plant #4 looks like a lettuce right now, but I know it isn’t. I’m pretty sure this was part of some pack of seeds my kids brought home from a birthday party a couple of years ago. It was the  only species of flower from that pack (“native wildflowers” or “butterfly garden” or some such) that grew to maturity last year, and produced mid-size pink flowers (with just a couple of large petals) on 8-10 inch stems. A member of the poppy family, maybe? It sees to have overwintered just fine, and these cool little green leaves speckled with pink/ruby spots are interesting.  It’s growing in full sun, if that helps.

While it’s gratifying to see plants you put hard work into nurturing, feeding and weeding come back every year, part of the fun is also in the unexpected chaos of the garden. The plant that decides not to bloom one year and flourishes the next, the unexpected guest that hitches a ride in that clump of daylilies you harvested from an overgrown roadside, and the mysterious volunteer that sprouts from something borne on the wind all add an element of surprise and delight to even the most carefully planned garden.

Some of these mystery plants will likely be keepers, others doubtless invasive weeds. Any guesses or confident plant IDs would be appreciated.

 

The first daffodil (surrounded by emerging campanula).More campanula erupting around the crocus.First phlox bloom.And, a volunteer I think might be speedwell. [Note: the larger scalloped leaves in the center belong to an althea zabrina which went rogue.]

The last two (frost-free!) weeks have seen the emergence of many, many perennials, and the first few blooms. As the squirrels search everywhere for their hidden nuts, they scamper through a tall forest of daffodil leaves and thick clumps of the darker green star of Bethlehem.  They’ve been digging all around the trefoil leaves of my new trillium, but thankfully seem disinterested in it.

While the first few spots of color are welcome after the winter, the real beauty in the garden at this time of year lies in the tiny, perfect shapes of the emerging perennials. The minute pale green scalloped leaves of the columbine push through the mulch assertively, while the sharp-toothed heads of the gladioli slice through the dirt like knives. The couple of small campanula plants I put in last summer have been busy spreading their roots throughout the surrounding beds, and tiny new plants are erupting all over the place. As these plants didn’t flower last year, I hope they’re going to put on a show this summer.

A fiesty gladioli.First rhubarb leaves.The thick snouts of the hyacinth always make me think of the sand worms of Dune as they emerge, reach for the sky, and open like hungry mouths.

Certainly not much to look at now, but these weak pink sprouts will soon grow into rather large and lovely bleeding hearts.

All in all, it’s an exciting time in the garden, the first hints that all the work that goes into maintaining it is going to pay off yet again. Going by all the leaves emerging, I’m hoping we might have a very good year for tulips (due to careful dividing and transplanting over the past two years) and my rather bare, ugly front beds might actually approach the sea of tall blooms I envisioned over the last two years when I planted dozens of tall plants (gladioli, iris, peony, foxglove, hollyhock, lily, poppy, and delphiniums). I was afraid most of these had died over the winter, but now I see new shoots emerging from the brown husks of some of the hollyhocks and foxgloves, so they might be more resilient than I thought.

Fingers crossed we’re spared a prolonged arctic blast to stunt or kill all this budding lushness.