handbuilt rhubarb forcing pot

Perhaps you’ve heard me talk of the rhubarb pot, that essential of the Victorian kitchen garden, and one of those beautiful objects that functions so simply to extend the growing season. Forcing rhubarb to reach for the light, warming and protecting it to set it growing earlier, and producing a fine, sweet, early fruit – this is the purpose of a rhubarb pot. Looking elegant in a walled garden is a fine off season occupation. When I saw the other potters handbuilding giant pots, I had to try making one myself.

patting

Enormous thing. It will shrink by almost a quarter as it dries, mind. Mine is unconventional not only in being handbuilt, where most rhubarb pots are thrown or cast, but it is also singular in using white clay, where terracotta is traditional. Still, it ought to do the job, or at least be sculptural. Let me show you something of the technique I learned.

press

The trusty press.

pressed

After wedging the clay, and adjusting the height of the press to a good thickness, say, half an inch, the clay is flattened in the press.

compressing

A rib is used to compress the clay on both sides, to smooth and strengthen it.

slip

As with any handbuilt thing, scoring and slipping connects the pieces – wide slabs that we slice and stand up and curve to meet. Any repairs later can use paper slip. Wonderful fortifying stuff, just wet clay with paper soaked til fibrous, not unlike papermaking.

applying

Just a slight overlap is connected. Scored, slipped, pressed, then worked smooth. Applying the next piece to the outside makes the thing wider; to the inside curves it in. Many of the potters built the piece half way up, then flipped the entire thing and worked on it that way – but because a rhubarb pot is entirely open at the base, and only curves in at the top somewhat, I left it.

bat

Knocking the clay into shape is one of those most gratifying tasks. It is amazing how much shaping can be done with a bit of brute strength and courage, as the clay doesn’t simply move but compresses. This bat is wrapped in twine to discourage the clay from sticking to it while it is the consistency of cool butter.

dart

I still needed to remove some clay with darts, work redolent of dressmaking. By this time I was standing on a step stool to reach into the pot, turning it on a lazy susan.

muriel

Isn’t it a wonderful process? I adore the wheel and must be torn from it. Yet somehow this technique felt more compelling than a coil pot, and the proportions are fascinating to me. Consulting with my friend and mentor, Muriel, the potter at Winter Creek. I’m so lucky to study with her. She talked me through the most wonderful bit of throwing, to make a handle for the lid.

You might like to watch a Victorian thumb-sprinkler being thrown, another fascinating bit of historical pottery.

raking leaves

Raking leaves is a chore transformed to a simple pleasure, these days. What is that shift that comes with even the palest sense of ownership? To want to nurture the garden, assist in its beauty and richness.

raking leaves

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p>Now I rake with great joy in the physical work, pleased by the change from a patterned lawn to a clear one. Oh! How good to begin to settle into seasonal tasks. I rake up leaves to mulch round plants and protect beds of soil from drumming rains, to repress weeds, to layer with kitchen scraps and enrich our compost for next year’s vegetables. I’m amazed to find myself wishing for more leaves to produce leaf mould. In the rocky highlands the soil is thin, so I’m greedy for earth. Waves of red and gold drop from the trees along the lake, and my arms grow tired and recover in time for the next wave. I like to think of the first old gardener here, doing the same. When the trees are bare, the garden will be cosily put to bed.

tree graffiti

Carved into the bark of a tall tree by the lake, now so overgrown that we cannot make it out, there is an aged message.

carved initial tree graffiti

Unmistakably, a heart; perhaps, some letters, that old declaration, one plus the other. Did a young lover cut initials into the tree? Was it the old botanist, great-grandfather of the lake, who built our cottage, and the great-grandmother who designed the place? Such a sweet old fashioned sculptural proclamation of love.

container garden

Though every day is bursting, and rarely lets up, though this marks the last of April, there is still time to start a vegetable garden. Just a few minutes one day, to choose some seeds, a few more the next, to prepare containers or, lucky you, a bed. Get some good compost in, pick a bright spot. You need only decide how many seeds to plant, how widely, how deeply, the packet will tell you all of this. Get them firmed in and watered. Keeping them damp, perhaps with a thumb-sprinkler, til they sprout is probably the hardest bit. Plant up another round of some things in a couple of weeks, and keep them rolling all summer! Finding these few minutes for vegetable gardening is something I never regret.

veg-garden-2s.jpg

If you needed something to make you feel industrious and grounded, even a row of potted herbs will accomplish it. At our house the children take care of watering the seedlings. Food becomes education. Later I’ll help them tie up a frame for the peas to grow up, and give the kale collars to keep cabbage moths from laying eggs. Not much to it yet, hardly even a weed. Our vegetable garden is small, no rambling garden with a greenhouse, just a few containers squeezed into my mother’s beautiful garden, but I am as pleased by it as if it were a many times the size. Just to grow some of our food is a great pleasure.

This year I’m just growing lettuces, kale, peas, beans, strawberries and a few herbs in the container garden. I think you remember my doorstep garden, do you? For more small, do-able, inspiring traditional projects, don’t forget to sign up to appleturnover’s quarterly.

rhubarb crown

Rhubarb, like so many things I adore, requires more patience than work. You can plant a rhubarb crown through March – though November or December is best – so we squeaked in a quick bit of transplanting.

rhubarb crown © elisa rathje 2013

My mother’s well-established rhubarb is coming along nicely. Next door to this raised bed, we needed to move some rhubarb to another spot.

rhubarb crown

We gently dug it out, just as you would if you were dividing it. I can see what it is called a crown, the roots are majestic.

rhubarb planting

The crown needs to be planted with the growth at or just above the soil level, and some good compost tipped in first will help it get a good start. Here’s where the patience comes in. Aside from watering in well, the rhubarb isn’t harvested in its first year, and only lightly in the second. Yet for a good ten years, the rhubarb should provide nicely, without much attention at all. A bit of fertiliser in midsummer perhaps, and then cutting back the leaves in autumn when they’ve died off. Not much to it.

rhubarb crown © elisa rathje 2013

It seems happy enough, though it might have preferred moving earlier in the year. One day I’ll be settled enough to put in my own rhubarb and look forward to years of pulling rhubarb for kiiseli, rhubarb tarts, rhubarb anything. Perhaps I shall give in to a Victorian impatience and try forcing it with a rhubarb pot! I anticipate it each spring as the first local fruit of the season.