Story telling from Australia
There’s a lot I could be blamed for in this garden but surely I wasn’t responsible for the demise of the rhubarb? What went wrong? I hate not knowing.
I planted the healthy corm in a spot that only gets two or three hours of sunlight a day, but that shouldn’t have mattered. Rhubarb can withstand a bit of shade; it grows like a weed in England. I have a friend who lives on the edge of the North Yorkshire moors and his back garden is overrun by rhubarb. The last time he saw sunlight was quite some time ago, so a bit of shade in Sydney shouldn’t have mattered. And anyway, until a few days ago, the rhubarb was thriving.
I even mulched around the crown, piling up crushed sugar cane around the green leaves and pink shoots, anticipating the rhubarb crumble we’d enjoy in the depths of winter, oven set on high to produce that sweet crunch of caramelised topping, the sharp tang of rhubarb sweetened by orange juice and sugar with a delicate hint of ginger. Ah… bliss.
And that, of course, was the problem. Having rushed towards the crumble and custard I stopped tending the young plant and left it to fend for itself. The next time I checked it had wilted.
Was it the rain? We had an unexpected deluge over several days and the raised beds probably didn’t drain that well. Maybe rhubarb liked drier conditions? I checked online: “Rhubarb likes to be kept moist.” That explains why I had such trouble growing it in the desert climate of Broken Hill then, but why the problem in Sydney?
I like to learn from my mistakes. Thinking it might be a surfeit of mulch (was I crowding you?) I scraped away the sugar cane and exposed the shoots. It made no difference. Day after day the rhubarb shrivelled in front of my eyes and the once perky green leaves lay on the ground and wilted. Ants seemed vaguely interested in the soggy stalks but I doubted if they could have done so much damage.
I was going to use this post to ask if anyone had any advice, then last night, torch in hand, I crept out to check on the remains of what used to be a thriving plant (we were getting on so well, what went wrong?) I shone the torch at the base of the one of last remaining stalks and – aha! There was a small black slug sucking the life out of my dying rhubarb. The tiny culprit was barely half the size of my little finger nail and it seemed unlikely that such a miniscule pest could have wreaked so much havoc, but the evidence was incontrovertible.
I picked the slug off and flicked it onto the roof of my studio, where it would be prey for hungry birds in the morning. As I did so the beam of light shifted. It fell onto the end of the last pitiful stalk, lying prone under the weight of a monster…
The glistening beast was so big I thought I must have stepped into a horror movie. It was a six inch long leopard slug – the back garden equivalent of King Kong – and it had draped its oozing body along the last delicate stem of rhubarb. The plant was suffocating in slime.
I filled a plastic tub with beer, donned rubber gloves and plucked the slimy monster off my rhubarb, dropping it with a satisfying plop into a watery grave. Having spent twenty minutes listening to Buddhist chants earlier in the day I felt obliged to offer up a silent apology to the universe. Quite frankly it wasn’t that heartfelt.
I left the tub buried in the garden, as a warning to others, and by this morning the beer had attracted several more occupants.
The rhubarb didn’t survive and I learnt a valuable lesson. Sometimes a plant’s not meant to grow – wrong place, wrong time – and sometimes it might be under attack from a stealthy intruder. Tender young plants need protection.
I’ll plant another corm and this time I’ll surround it with a ring of crushed eggshells or a strip of copper – both ways of deterring slugs. There’s danger out there in the dead of night and if it happens again I’ll be ready.
Hands off my rhubarb!