rhubarb pot

Rhubarb is one of those vegetables that does so well posing as fruit, it was officially granted the title in 1947. In early spring before plants are fruiting, rhubarb is such a delight. And there’s a tried & true tool I’d love to have, that promises rhubarb far earlier. The rhubarb pot.

rhubarb pot © elisa rathje 2012

Rhubarb forcers are bell shaped pots with a lid covered opening at the top. Used to cover rhubarb to limit photosynthesis, they encourage the plant to grow early in the season and also to produce blanched stems. The pots are placed over two to three year old rhubarb crowns during winter or very early spring. Once shoots appear the lid is taken off, causing them to grow towards the light.
Straw and manure tucked round the pots helps to insulate the terra cotta. Every two or three years a crown can be forced, so being able to remove the pot whilst leaving the plant in the ground, is a brilliant solution.

sandwell park farm walled kitchen garden © elisa rathje 2012
Forcing rhubarb seems simple enough, and the pots are so charming and sculptural, not unlike another Victorian favourite, the thumb-sprinkler. I adore the the walled kitchen gardens in Europe, with their cold frames, espaliered trees, cloches and rhubarb pots. One day I may venture out to the Rhubarb Triangle, perhaps never to return. I’d love some rhubarb just now, to make a family recipe for rhubarb soup.

thumb-sprinkler

Not so long ago I came across a beautiful Victorian garden tool, simply constructed out of terra cotta. A thumb sprinkler, fascinating object. Like a closed bell, with perforations on the base and a hole at the top, the thumb sprinkler is plunged into a bucket of water to fill, then the thumb-hole is covered. Held over a batch of delicate seedlings, the sprinkler releases droplets just perfect for wetting the earth whilst leaving growing plants undisturbed. An antiquated spray bottle. Not unlike my droplet decanter in design. Clever! I told my dear pottery teacher Katrina about it, and being amazingly wonderful, she made one for me, and one for you. Would you like to see her throw a Victorian thumb-sprinkler on the wheel?

Settling the clay on the wheel; bringing the clay up and down twice over; centering; widening; opening up; compressing; bringing the wall up; compressing the rim; pulling up; compressing; pulling; collaring; soaking up water; wetting with slurry; closing in; refining the shape; coning in; clearing the slurry; cutting in; wiring off.

thumb-sprinkler-s.jpg

The finished, perforated, glazed and fired sprinkler. I’m using it to care for lettuces & seeds in my greenhouse.

Katrina Pechal makes absolutely gorgeous, textured work with volcanic glazes, completely unlike the beautiful Victorian sprinklers she made for us. She also teaches, with astonishing clarity and delight, wheel-throwing in her Forest Row, Sussex studio to adults and children. I love studying with Katrina.

penny whistle

Penny whistles are fine little folk instruments, a variation on the old world wooden whistle. The tin whistle was first made in Victorian times and has a splendid story to go with it. My penny whistle was constructed very much as these whistles always were, not far from our little cottage, and it arrived complete with a sheet of Victorian singing games.

tin whistle © elisa rathje 2012

It’s a pretty little pipe, I’m quite fond of it, especially for joining in on a jig with my tall violinist.

The penny whistle is also one of the traditional instruments I like for playing the little appleturnover song I made up a long time ago. For requesting apple turnovers, naturally. If you like you can listen to it. The children helped me with the very important bit of singing.

pomander

Late in the autumn, just before we turn our thoughts to holiday plans and wintry things, we like to make clove oranges. Some very sweet clementines arrived in the farm shop, so we took them home and set about making pomanders.

clove-oranges © elisa rathje 2011

The oldest pomanders were used as spiced, perfumed necklaces, often held in amber, ‘pomme d’amber’, but through the Victorian era their use was more firmly in the home, much like potpourri, to freshen the air and drive away pests. Oranges and other fruit studded with cloves, sometimes rolled in spices, and allowed to cure, can keep for years, releasing scented oils. Like a lavender sachet, these are very functional, as the strong scents truly do deter moths, and clear the air. No old wive’s tale here – or only the best kind.

clove-oranges © elisa rathje 2011

If the oranges are quite thin-skinned, even little hands can press the cloves in easily, and make a design of one sort or another. Such a glorious scent! Inspiration to bake spice cookies. These can be set in a bowl, tucked into muslin when dry, or tied up with ribbons in a closet.

clove-oranges © elisa rathje 2011

I’ve set one beside another of my little homemade sprigged pots. Soon we’ll set about our winter decorations. It’s still quite mild, if a little stormy, in the south of England, but even the oak over our cottage is nearly bare-branched. Little lights and a bright wreath would be very welcome.

bellows

Luck was with us one autumn day when we spotted an old bellows in a charity shop window, going for five pounds. Such an ancient instrument, easily three thousand years since it’s invention, and a popular fireside tool throughout medieval times. You’d have seen one near every hearth through the Victorian age. And yet it seemed quaint to buy it.

bellows © elisa rathje 2011

Nothing of the kind. Chilly days have arrived, with fires lit in the wood stoves. They’re astonishingly effortless to revive with the little bellows. Our little country cottage is much easier to keep cosily warm since it came home with us. Marvellous.

bellows © elisa rathje 2011

The bellows was a little bashed, scratched and burnt, so I gave it a lick of chalk paint in ‘french linen’. I love it’s purposeful shape. It needs a noble spot on the wall by the hearth.