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June 2015
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July 2015

Reliable rhubarb - how to grow and what variety to choose

A beautiful bunch of Sydney crimson (aka Gran's Red) Rhubarb. Little ec0 footprints

Rhubarb is one worthwhile garden plant. It’s beautiful, hardy, low-maintenance and delicious. I especially love that you plant it once and, if you care for your patch properly, you can be harvesting rhubarb indefinitely.

Right now – late winter and into early spring – is a good time to plant rhubarb.

It’s typically planted as crowns. You can raid a friend’s garden and divide crowns from an existing plant, or you can buy crowns or potted plants from a nursery.

Winter red varieties of Australian rhubarb

Much of the literature regarding growing rhubarb talks about it going dormant in winter. But not all varieties do this.

Numerous beautiful red winter rhubarb varieties were developed in Australia in the early 1900s.

Winter Red Rhubarb stems. Little eco footprints

These rhubarbs not only survive year round, they are actually at their best in winter – a time perfectly suited to warm stewed or baked rhubarb.

I suspect I'm growing Sydney Crimson – a winter rhubarb variety that was very popular with market gardeners in the 1940s and 50s.

It’s been in my family for more than 60 years. I call it Gran’s Red. Gran called it Sydney Red. She was very proud of her super red rhubarb. I've maintained a pot or patch of this rhubarb for the past 20 years and so have many of my relatives.

Other year-round varieties of rhubarb available in Australia include Wandin Red, Ever Red and Next Generation.

How to plant Rhubarb

Choose a sunny to partially shaded spot for your rhubarb. It can tolerate a little shade and appreciates afternoon shade in summer.

How to grow rhubarb. Little eco footprints

Rhubarb thrives best in rich soil with good drainage. Improve your soil with plenty of aged manure or compost.

Plant the crowns at least 50 centimetres apart. The growing surface of crowns should sit at or just below the surface. Water well and mulch.

How to harvest rhubarb

Give your plants plenty of time to establish and don’t harvest any stems for the first year or so after planting.

When harvesting rhubarb, hold the stalk near the base and gently pull it away from the crown. This ensures the whole stem comes away and doesn't leave a stump, which can cause rot.

Harvest the thickest stems and always leave behind plenty of stems or you will exhaust the plant.

I have enough plants so that I only harvest a couple of stems from each plant each time.

Gran's Red Rhubarb. Little eco footprints

Remove the leaves from the stalks.

Rhubarb leaves cannot be eaten but are safe to compost. Little eco footprints

The leaves are high in oxalic acid and shouldn't be eaten or fed to poultry or other stock. They can be composted safely. I keep a compost bin next to my rhubarb patch so that I can easily toss leaves straight into the compost. 

How to keep your rhubarb patch happy

To keep your rhubarb happy, top-dress it with well-rotted manure or compost before and after its peak growing season. For me, this is spring and autumn.

Regular liquid fertiliser is also a good idea.

It is almost impossible to overfeed rhubarb.

Don’t let rhubarb dry out, especially in summer. Keep your patch well watered and mulch generously. It is best to thoroughly water infrequently rather than give them a little frequently.

Adding plenty of high-nitrogen organic matter should discourage flowering. But if flowers do appear, remove them and increase feeding and watering, otherwise your plants will put energy into flowers rather than stems.

Healthy, large rhubarb plants can be dug up and divided for replanting. Use a spade and dig the whole clump from the soil. Shake off excess dirt and divide into large pieces using a sharp spade or knife. Ensure each piece has at least three growing points and good roots.

Stewed rhubarb with citrus and honey. Little eco footprints

Stewed Rhubarb on porridge - a selicious winter treat. Little eco footprints

My favourite way to enjoy rhubarb is simply stewed with orange juice and a little honey. What's yours? 

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 17th July 2015.

Wouldn't you rather speak to a real person?

I want to stop talking to machines. Only a few years ago, talking computers were rare. These days I find myself being forced into a conversation with a machine far too often.

I'm starting to envisage a future where our days are devoid of casual chats and instead are full of frustrating interactions with computers. It’s a vision I don’t like.

Shopping is one of the key ways we interact with our community.

A quick chat with the post office clerk. A smile from a checkout teller. A helpful tip from the hardware lady. A conversation with a farmer about their crop. 

Farmers Market haul. Produce purchased from real people not machines. little eco footprints

Farmers Market haul. Produce purchased from real people not machines comes with bonus nourishment for the soul. 

These brief moments all contribute to our sense of being part of a community.

For many, particularly the elderly, the opportunity to chat to someone at the local shops is an important part of their day. And for my daughter, shopping is one way she learns how to politely talk to strangers.

But being served by a real person may become a rarity.

Our supermarkets, hardware stores, and many of our service providers, are switching to self-service technology. We get to serve ourselves – with the help of a talking machine.

Imagine a world where we have to talk to machines each and every day

A few frustrating moments with machines has me imagining what life might be like if we’re forced to deal with talking machines too often.

I popped into a supermarket early in the morning and had no choice but to go through a self-serve checkout. I was in a good mood. I’d bumped into a good friend and we’d had a quick chat. I put down my sweet potato – "assistance needed". I picked up and put down one of my cloth bags. "Assistance needed". Then the machine couldn't give me all my change because the coin outlet was blocked. "Assistance needed". In total I got an "assistance needed" error four times. Each time I had to wait for someone to walkover from the front counter to fix the problem. I walked out of the shop grumpy and rushed.

I had a similar frustrating interaction with a machine when trying to speak to a real-life person about my telephone bill. I found myself yelling at the automatic computer voice. My daughter looked on confused. "It’s OK – it’s just a computer" I told her, as if the fact that I was talking to a computer made my yelling acceptable. The machine gave me answers to questions I didn't ask and told me to have a nice day – and hung up. I phoned multiple times until I discovered an answer that would put me through to a person.

If I found myself in a future where I was forced to talk to machines regularly, I'm guessing I would be one very grumpy person.

How to encourage a future filled with real-life people rather than machines.

Seek out and embrace opportunities to connect with and be served by people – the farmers’ market, greengrocers, butcher, baker – and small local hardware store.

If we don’t support these small local stores, we may find ourselves in a future where we have no choice but to be served by machines.

If that happened, I'm guessing our communities would become filled with very grumpy people.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 6th July 2015.


Thermal + Haybox cooking: new ways to use an old technique {Milkwood}


Our great-grandparents didn't have slow cookers to make their life easier. But they may have had something similar – a box of hay. Haybox cooking involved placing a hot pot of food in a nest of hay and leaving it there to complete cooking.

Thermal cooking is an efficient and convenient way to cook – so it’s not surprising its making a comeback.


I use my thermal pot often. I make dinner in the morning when things are less chaotic. I toss the ingredients for a curry in one pot and put rice and water in the other. I boil each for a couple of minutes and pop them in the thermal flask. Hours later I open it and dinner is ready.

I'm sharing more ways to use this old technique over on the Milkwood blog.

I'm thrilled the Milkwood team has invited me to be a regular contributor over there. 

Comforting comfrey - how to use comfrey as a medicine and in your garden

Medicinal and garden uses of comfrey. Little eco footprints

I'm feeling very grateful for the healing power of plants. I've been using comfrey leaves to soothe a sore back and have been surprised by how well it works. Comfrey is not only a useful medicinal herb – it can also be used in the garden to improve and fertilise soil. My love for comfrey is stronger than ever and I'm determined to grow as much of this useful plant as I can.

Comfrey has been used as a medicinal plant for centuries.

It can reduce pain and inflammation and speed up mending of bruises, sprains and broken bones.

Knowing of its anti-inflammatory properties, I decided to try a comfrey poultice on my sore lower back.

A poultice is an easy way to apply healing herbs to the skin. Basically, it’s a paste of whatever herbs or healing substance you want to use, typically wrapped in a piece of cloth – such as gauze, muslin or other open-weave cotton fabric – and placed on the skin.

I was surprised by just how much the comfrey poultice reduced my back pain. I wore a poultice full-time (changing morning and night) until I ran out of comfrey. The back pain returned.

Intrigued by its effectiveness, I did some further reading and discovered there’s solid research confirming the therapeutic effectiveness of comfrey. Of particular interest to me is its effectiveness in relieving lower back pain.

So I've decided to increase the amount of comfrey in my garden. Thankfully it’s easy to grow.

How to propagate comfrey

Common comfrey (Symphytum officinale) can be grown by seed, root cuttings and division, whereas Russian comfrey (Symphytum uplandicum) is sterile (does not produce viable seed) and can only be grown from cuttings or division.

Given that a small piece of root is all that is needed to create a new comfrey plant, it’s easy to quickly propagate a large number.

How to use comfrey in your garden

Once you have comfrey established in your garden you can use it in a myriad of ways.

Comfrey’s strong roots draw up nutrients from the soil. You can chop and drop the mineral-rich leaves and use them as a mulch. Leaves can be added to compost as a conditioner. Or you can make a nutritious tea (for plants) by brewing leaves in a bucket of water for a couple of weeks.

Is comfrey safe to eat? 

There’s a lot of debate regarding the safety of ingesting comfrey.

The debate is due to the presence of small quantities of a toxic alkaloid pyrrolizidine which can have a cumulative effect on the liver.

Common comfrey has negligible quantities of the toxic alkaloid and has long been safely consumed, particularly as a medicinal tea.

Russian comfrey, a hybrid bred in the 1950s largely for its ability to improve soils, has higher levels of pyrrolizidine.

Given that it appears Russian comfrey is often sold as common comfrey, I’m playing it safe and don’t consume home-grown comfrey. I supposedly bought common comfrey root cuttings from a reputable nursery. But given that I haven’t seen a seed set in the three years I’ve been growing it, I’m not convinced I wasn’t sold the Russian variety.

Whichever comfrey you have, scatter it liberally around your garden and use young leaves topically and you can’t go wrong. Comfrey is one amazing herb.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 29th June 2015.