Her Outdoors: Divide and rule

Jane Merrick

During winter, I have a habit of staring at the blank canvas of soil on many of my allotment beds, peering closely to see if anything is growing. Yes, there are spring cabbages, kale, purple sprouting broccoli and over-wintering broad beans in the beds closer to the hedge. There are some spears of onions and garlic, about four inches tall. The chicory is still going strong; the Brussels sprouts are nearly finished. At the base of the trunk of the grapevine, a puddle of snowdrops. But, mostly, it is just empty beds, dark soil, yet full of promise for spring.

And then, this week, I spotted the pink buds of rhubarb near to the grapevine – an old crown that I’d forgotten about, that was inherited from the previous plotholders. Last summer it looked tired and straggly, didn’t offer decent-sized stalks, and anyway was by then deep in the shade of the grapevine. Winter is the right time to dig up old crowns and divide them in two, plant them in a new spot with plenty of refreshing compost, and hope for a couple of rejuvenated plants.

There is still just enough time to divide rhubarb – it needs to be done before the buds are properly in growth. As you can see I am sailing close to the wind here as there is a little shield shaped leaf already. But with a poor rhubarb plant, I’ve got nothing to lose.

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An old crown of rhubarb ripe for division

Firstly, I dug up the entire plant – with its thick tap roots and all – and sat it on top of the soil. Then, I positioned the spade between two healthy buds:

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Position your spade between two strong buds

Next, with a bit of welly, I plunged the spade between the crown, splitting the section in two:

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Plunge spade through crown...

You can see here that the root has been split in two, but this is ok because it will compensate with the other roots. The two halves are now ready to be replanted as separate crowns.

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...the crowns are now separated and can be replanted

Here is one of them in its new position.

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One of the crowns in its new spot

They will be rather exhausted from the stress of being chopped in half, so it might be best to take just a few stalks this season, and from July leave it be to recover. I’ve also planted some new crowns that I got from DT Brown via mail order – ‘Victoria’ and ‘Timperley Early’. Again, as they’re new, they need lots of pampering with well-rotted organic matter and only a few stalks taking from them this season.

It is also a good time to divide other perennials like mint. I have some Moroccan mint in a pot by the front door which is becoming quite crowded. Dig it up, divide it into about five different groups of roots/shoots, and re-pot using fresh compost.

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