Growing rhubarb on a shady plot

Closeup of rhubarb stalks on wooden table

Rhubarb ‘Champagne’ is an early variety that is ideal for forcing
Image: Rhubarb ‘Champagne’ (Spring/Autumn Planting) from T&M

Having waited more than five years for an allotment, guest blogger Richard Mulcahy decided that a shady plot was better than none at all. But choosing what to grow is a bit more tricky when you don’t get unfettered access to the sun. 

Having decided to plant rhubarb crowns, here’s what he’s learnt about growing different varieties of this delicious crop in the darkest corner of his allotment.

Special crops for shady plots

Shady allotment plot with shed in background

The plot in late spring
Image: Richard Mulcahy

When I originally took on my allotment there were two thoughts in my mind:

  1. I really, really want an allotment.
  2. This plot is quite shady.

About half of the size of a traditional plot, my patch of earth is almost perfectly square. Immediately to the south and east is a tall bank of trees meaning that a good portion of the plot is quite dull, especially in late spring. However it wasn’t quite as bad as I thought – the plot is wide open to the west and gets some fairly decent light (and maybe more importantly heat). Also, once spring turns into summer, the sun is high enough in the sky to light up a good half of my patch.

Over the last two years I’ve been experimenting with plants that grow in shade, or near shady conditions.

In the shadiest part I eventually decided on comfrey and rhubarb. Rhubarb is very easy to grow and seems quite happy in the shadows. Amazingly, I’ve noticed stalks pushing up as early as New Year’s Day!

I grow two varieties of rhubarb – mainly because I was interested to see if there was any difference in taste, but also to spread the harvest a little. A rhubarb taster’s collection is a good idea.

Planting my rhubarb crowns

Rhubarb Timperly Early growing in ground

With an Award of Garden Merit, ‘Timperley Early’ is one of the first varieties to mature
Image: Rhubarb ‘Timperley Early’ (Spring/Autumn Planting) from T&M

I’ve always found rhubarb easy to get started, and follow these broad, common sense guidelines:

  • Plant the crown in a nice mixture of compost, feed and soil to give it a good start.
  • Leave it alone for at least a year, avoiding all temptation to pull a stalk or two in the first season.
  • Feed your plants once a year with manure or compost or whatever you have. I even throw the huge leaves back around the plant sometimes and let them rot down over time.

Other plants that thrive in shade

Compact lupin variety growing in borders

Free-flowering in early summer, this compact variety copes well with part shade
Image: Lupin ‘Gallery’ from T&M

I also got my hands on some bareroot comfrey. I went for non-flowering sterile comfrey ‘Bocking 14’, although one plant definitely flowered this year but I presume it didn’t set seed. The comfrey has done fine in the shadiest corner and will provide superb fodder for the compost heap. I put the roots in last year – they took quite slowly and the slugs didn’t leave them alone. But I’m confident that I’ll have about ten healthy plants this year and that they’ll become a useful addition to an otherwise difficult part of the plot.

Another green manure that did fine in the shade was Phacelia – easily grown by broadcasting the seed into a prepared bed. The resulting plants are simply cut and dug in as a soil improver. They also have quite pretty flowers if allowed to bloom. Mentioning blooms – I also put a row of lupins along the back fence. Again, very happy in the shade!

Several years on, as I lean on the fence in the winter rain, I’ve realised that one of the most important things I’ve learnt is to work with the ground that you have. Finding plants that like your conditions is half the battle and half the joy!

Head over to our plants for shade hub page for more help and advice planting up gloomy areas of the garden or allotment. Or if you’ve been inspired to grow your own crumble filling, visit our dedicated rhubarb hub page!

Published at Mon, 14 Nov 2022 05:40:55 -0500

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