Rhubarb Now

ANOTHER STORY

Tina [my wife] and I purchased the ex rhubarb Dingley farm from my parents in the 1980’s. Under our guidance a world class wholesale/retail plant nursery evolved on the property, complete with gigantic architecturally stunning buildings, and our dream house at the back of the property. LIFE WAS GOOD. The few aforementioned words fail to describe the 20 years of “BLOOD, SWEAT and TEARS” that went to build this horticulture colossus, not to mention the financial risks involved. This all came to an end when the land was rezoned for residential housing. Dramatically escalating rates and land taxes made it untenable, forcing its sale and ultimate demolition of the magnificent buildings [what a waste]. SUCH IS LIFE.

1995 came and a new beginning. We happily settled on a 20 hectare [50 acre] property at Keysborough, on the outskirts of Melbourne. Various successful enterprises were run simultaneously from this property, including manufacturing, and a large wholesale carnivorous plant nursery [my specialty]. The ultimate goal was to turn the property into high grade horse agistment and semi retire. My life plan was to get up late, drive around the property and check the 50 or so horses, maybe mend a broken wire, and collect the agistment money. BLISS. Then “deja vu” it happened again, the land was rezoned for commercial use [factories]. With past experience we knew that there was only one course of action - SELL - and sell we did. The carnivorous plant nursery was relocated in a hi-tech purpose built nursery at my daughter and son-in-law’s property at Somerville Victoria.

RHUBARB THE NEXT CHAPTER

So in 2006 at the age of 65 after a long, varied, and successful horticultural career, I Colin Clayton was retired. BLISS, no more work, or worries. Just one long holiday, interrupted perhaps by a little social tennis and maybe mowing the lawns.

Tina [my wife] and I purchased a lovely established 10 acre boutique property at Baxter nearby to Donna and Jason's nursery. Life was good.

There was an old vegetable patch out the back, so in a moment of boredom I thought I might grow a few vegetables for the house. Clearing the weeds away I came across 3 weak, tired, starving rhubarb plants. Remembering my rhubarb growing heritage I nurtured them, but they never thrived, always remaining sickly and green. This triggered a search for better plants. This search soon became an obsession and rhubarb was acquired from every possible Australian source. It did not matter where it came from, what it looked like, or what it did. Red, green, giant, stunted, perennial, winter deciduous, all were gathered up, meticulously catalogued, labeled and planted out for evaluation. While this was happening I was travelling extensively, including several trips to Great Britain. The rhubarb capital of the world Wakefield was included, along with the national rhubarb collection at Harlow Carr. Many of the seed harvested from these clones germinated well, thrived for the first year, but lacking the cold winter hibernation period, they sulked and weakened. What a shame, all of these bountiful historic clones, out of our horticultural reach. (I harvested seed of Russian clones in Greenland where temperatures reach -49C and they thrived, and still do.) One of the highlights was a visit to Queen Victoria’s summer residence on the Isle of Wight. Here, in her beautifully preserved walled garden, they were growing in historically correct alternate rows of “Queen Victoria” and “Prince Albert”. These plants were possibly the descendents of the original clones. What a thrill.

Meanwhile back on the farm, I already had a 55 year old tractor along with a set of disc harrows that I had bought new in 1959. The addition of an old disc plough provided all the necessary implements to grow rhubarb in a small commercial scale. What to do with all this rhubarb was the next problem. My daughter and son in law were doing weekend markets and I decided to grow ready to eat advanced pots of rhubarb. A label was designed and pots purchased. They were marketed to the nursery trade, big box chains, and weekend markets where they met with a luke warm reception. About this time I started a farm gate shop selling pots and bunches, which works on an honesty system. Customers help themselves and put the money through a slot in a small safe. It generally works extremely well; the majority of rhubarb buyers are elderly and honest. For who could enjoy their rhubarb pie knowing the ingredients were stolen. The bunches, bigger than those offered by the supermarkets, are kept chilled in a glass fronted display fridge. A selection of potted rhubarb is always available. These are grown in 20cm pots and a premium range in 25cm pots. The 25cm pots are a distinctive color, to make pricing simple. Next came loose roots or crowns. This was an instant success, thousands were required. Nurseries, weekend markets, garden fairs, mail order firms, and farmers all wanted these. But to get them out of the ground was a problem. A twin row market gardener’s potato digger was what was required. But these hadn’t been built for 40 years, and those that had escaped the scrap iron dealers were just heaps of rusty junk. I purchased every old one I could find, and eventually made a reliable workable one out of many. At the time of writing it has dug over 250 x 50m beds or lands - that’s 12.5 kilometers’ of rhubarb. Well this was now perfected, what next? SEED!

SEED

Probably the best metaphor for a seed is a computer flash drive. A flash drive is a small package containing a lot of information. It can sit in your desk draw for years without doing anything. But when you plug it into your computer you give it the correct conditions to unpack the digital information that it contains. Similarly, a seed can sit happily in storage for years. When it is eventually given the correct conditions it unpacks its information. The information contained in a seed is stored in the form of DNA. It is a set of working plans for making a solar-powered, self-replicating machine out of nothing but air, sunlight, water and a tiny amount of chemicals mined from the soil; a machine called a plant. However this DNA is not set in stone, for during the duplication of the DNA in the seed, simply said, typos or spelling errors occur, resulting in every seedling being ever so slightly different. It is this trait that I was to exploit in my seed-raising venture.

In order to find better clones I experimented with growing rhubarb from seed. Every year millions of rhubarb plants are grown from seed for the pot plant trade, and millions more are grown for the loose root trade. Then why haven’t commercial culinary rhubarb growers done this? For they just divided up what they had, never experimenting, and never trading clones with their neighbors. Rhubarb was a closed shop, difficult for any new farmer to get started in, as increasing your stock by division took years to acquire enough to make a living from. Rhubarb grows incredibly well from seed. For sure some are not as good as the parents, but most are equal, a few are better, and the odd one is brilliant. Funny thing when I was a boy my father grew a very large area of rhubarb over a span of many years. I had a fair bit to do with it from when I was small until early adulthood. I can never remember one seed coming up in the furrows. Now on my farm, if any seed is not harvested and falls to the ground they come up by the thousands. Perhaps the answer is the rhubarb my father grew all those years ago was all one sterile clone, endlessly propagated by division for 50 years or more, and was infertile! The rhubarb seed business progressed rapidly, with the harvesting, drying, sorting, storing, and marketing quickly reaching a high degree of sophistication. Rhubarb seed is a very cheap, quick way to produce a plant, and the worldwide pot plant trade needs 100’s of 1000’s to supply the endless demands of the “big box” chain stores.

So the current status of French Harvest rhubarb farm is - rows and rows of pristine, disease free rhubarb, each row labeled with its name or code. Many of these rows are seedlings under evaluation, which ones to keep? Some are so good that just a few short years ago I would have been deliriously happy to have them, now they are just discards.

The heritage collection I so painstakingly collected and documented has been abandoned. There has been absolutely no interest in them. So that’s about where I’m at now. Where to next? Well! On a luxury cruise ship if my lovely wife of 50+ years has her way.


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