To see other seeds: Growing, Planting and Collecting
Not exactly a family as such but a group of vegetables that can be grown for many years without replanting. Besides the benefit of growing for years, some perennials will do well in partial shade as they do not need full sun to complete their life cycle in only one summer like tomatoes and other annual vegetables.
So far I have both rhubarb and asparagus growing in the vegetable beds; they need a dedicated space as digging them up each year will stunt their growth and production. I had to dig both up these past two years due to renovations and squirrel attacks (Third time lucky ) and my production has suffered. You can lift them to move them elsewhere if needed however; you may see a decrease in harvest that season, better to let them recover by harvesting minimally or not at all. They will eventually take up a lot of space so allow for that – until then you can plant annuals with shallow roots nearby so as not to disturb the growth. They say that asparagus doesn’t like to share soil but as long as you have enough nutrients it should be fine; just remember to add a layer of manure compost each year to compensate for the new growth.
Both could be grown from seed but the most common way to start growing them is to buy crowns, which is basically a dormant plant that has grown from seed or divided from a bigger plant.
Rhubarb can be bought as a crown in winter or early spring before it has sprouted new leaves or as a plant growing in a pot. There are many varieties with varied amounts of colour to the stem from green to bright red or pink; (more colour means sweeter stems) the leaves are poisonous so only the stems can be consumed. The first year you plant the rhubarb in the ground (either from a dormant crown or a pot) try not to harvest too many leaves. Be sure to always leave at least three big leaves so if it is not growing a lot then you might not get many leaves in the first year or two. In mid-autumn, stop harvesting all together so that the plant can make enough energy to store for sprouting in spring. I used to collect the stems if they fell off naturally during autumn but leave the growth for the plant.
The good thing is that the stems freeze well so you can collect stems over the season and freeze them until you have enough for the dish you want. The plants like some feeding – I just put compost around the base and also straw for mulching which breaks down too.
When all the leaves have fallen off I just cover with some straw/hay but you probably don’t even need to do that – I was just hiding them from the squirrels. Just make sure the crown doesn’t get too waterlogged as it can rot. Each year it will sprout from more spots than the year before and eventually will get so large you can divide in two (or more) and give a plant to your friends. The best plant to get is a division from someone who has a large plant as they will establish more quickly when planted in your garden. Below is the one I bought from the nursery as a pot plant and the other is from a friend’s division. The division sprouted first and has already put out two leaves.
If you get a division make sure not to bury too deep or at least wait until sprouting before burying completely, my division looked small (only had two buds at the top) but it has ended up sprouting all over with new leaves.
Technically you can collect the seeds from rhubarb when it flowers, however it will produce fewer stems as it diverts energy into growing the flower. Usually they will only flower under stress (or very hot weather and/or lack of watering); although heirloom varieties will bloom more often than modern ones as its bred out of them. The maturity of the plant also might cause it to bloom; this is probably a sign you should divide the plant. To stop flowering, make sure the plant has cool roots, is well watered and fertilised and that it has been divided recently. You can cut the flower off without any problems to the plant – it will just grow as it did before – however, if it bloomed due to stress it might do so again unless de-stressed.
Apparently the flowers are pretty cool as they are a very large stalk coming out of the middle of the rhubarb. They grow from the centre and look a bit like pale broccoli when they start off and then sprout into giant green or red hanging buds. However, only keep the flower if the plant is old and not super stressed as it might weaken the plant too much by growing a giant flower.
If your rhubarb flowers and you want to collect the seeds (although, if your rhubarb is prone to bolting then you might not want the seeds unless you want flowering rhubarb) you just need to let it go through the natural course and then when the stalk is brown and dry collect the seeds and leave them somewhere to dry fully – old seed does not germinate very well so use the seed within a couple of years. It will take about five years to get a plant big enough to collect stems.
Better yet, divide your rhubarb and then you will have many plants; do this in early spring when the weather is cool and you can see the buds forming. Dig the whole plant up (try to include as many roots attached as you can) and wash the dirt off to see where the buds are. Divide the plant into pieces making sure to include at least three buds in each division (more buds, quicker recovery); if it is a particularly old plant you may need to use a hatchet or saw as the plant will be very woody. Plant each new division quickly, making sure not to bury the crown or buds, if you are not planting immediately wrap in wet newspaper and a plastic bag to keep the piece moist.
Asparagus comes in crowns to plant before spring; it feels like ages before you can harvest the spears as you must wait until the third year before eating any. In the third year only harvest the largest spears for a half the season – in the fourth year you can harvest for the full season. Like the rhubarb you may find that if you harvest too many leaves (spears) then it will weaken the plant and it may produce less next year or eventually die. The spears that are not harvested will turn into ferns and allow the plant to feed itself. In autumn, when the spears are growing thinner than a pencil leave them all to turn into ferns so the plant can store energy for sprouting in spring.
They seem to be very easy to grow. Plant in well-drained, well-manured soil with the roots spread out slightly in the hole. Cut the ferns off when they turn yellow in late autumn protect with straw/hay; don’t cover to heavily with leaves or soil as they can rot. They don’t need any/much water over winter if the soil is damp; rewater if needed, when you see new growth in spring.
Asparagus come in male and female plants although most crowns sold are male only. Both plants will produce flowers but the female also produces berries (inedible) so may produce fewer spears as energy is diverted to the berries. Male plants live longer (maybe because they are not making berries) but if your female plants are producing enough spears for you then there is no point in getting rid of them.
I have both green and purple asparagus (‘Connover’s Colossal’ and ‘Crimson Pacific’) – the growing method is no different although the purple is supposed to be sweeter; some of my plants were bought as crowns (bare rooted) and some as tiny plants (compost blocks); the tiny plants need another year before established but can be more reliable as you know they are alive. Some crowns may be dried out when you receive them and may not sprout again when planted – I have had success with both so it is up to you. Make sure your crowns have buds on them like the ones planted below as that is what will sprout new spears.
You need male and female plants for seed production so it is unlikely you will get seed as most crowns are male only. If you are
unlucky and have a female plant then the red berries are what you need to save; after they turn bright red collect the stems and hang upside down to dry for a week or so. While you are waiting for them to dry tie a paper bag around them so you can collect the seeds as they fall.
Other option is to leave the berries to fall to the soil and sprout new asparagus in the spring.
Have you ever grown rhubarb or asparagus from seed? I am always interested in new ways of doing things and getting new plants from unlikely/uncommon sources (I guess seeds are common really except when divisions are involved)