As a Master Gardener I should know. I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I have been skimping on fertilizing my own garden. That fact dawned on me last fall after attending a refresher training.
“Think about everything you harvest from the garden in a growing season. You must return the nutrients to the soil,” the speaker said. “There is nothing wrong with regularly fertilizing your garden but sometimes people who garden organically have this odd reluctance to do that.”
I am one of those reluctant people. A light broadcast application of organic fertilizer in the spring, a handful around individual crops, a shovel full of compost here and there, and occasionally a few bags of manure, that’s all I would feed my garden during any given year. Except for the rhubarb being thin and leggy, the garden had been plentiful every year so I had just assumed things were sort of OK.
I had not done a soil test in years and it really was high time for one. The soil was not dramatically poor, still the test came back with the recommendation of adding 1.5 pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer (10% nitrogen, 10% phosphate and 10% potash) per 100 square feet.
That recommendation put me in a pickle because there is no organic fertilizer with a concentration that high, and I did not want to use any non-organic fertilizer.
After weighing my options I decided to continue using the organic fertilizer. Before planting or seeding anything this spring, I applied 3.5 pounds of 3-4-4 fertilizer per 50 square feet. It meant adding more than four times more organic fertilizer than conventional fertilizer. It seemed like a lot of fertilizer. To reassure myself that this was all right, when I went down to the garden with the fertilizer bag in the wheelbarrow I visualized me hauling a wheelbarrow full of tomatoes up to the house in August. What goes out must come back in, I told myself.
Later, when the vegetable seedlings are established, I will fertilize them with 1 1/3 cups fertilizer on each side for every 5-foot row. Individual plants like rhubarb and the berry bushes will get 1/3 cup each.
Rhubarb is a heavy feeder and for my two plants, the new richer diet has made a difference already. I have harvested several small bunches of tender pink rhubarb stalks. The two recipes below are so good that I simply need to keep feeding that rhubarb to get more.
Rhubarb Sweet Woodruff Syrup
When I saw the recipe for Rhubarb Parsley Syrup in Marisa McClellan’s new book Naturally Sweet Food in Jars, I immediately thought that the honey-sweetened syrup would also be delightful with sweet woodruff instead of parsley.
In its third year, my sweet woodruff patch underneath a tree is now so thick that I had ample material to work with, which I actually didn’t need because with sweet woodruff, a little goes a long way. You can find more about sweet woodruff and a recipe for plain Sweet Woodruff Syrup on my other blog, Spoonfuls of Germany.
I didn’t have enough rhubarb for a full batch of the recipe yet so I made only half. One small bottle, I knew for sure, would go fast in our house so I did not process it in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes like in Marisa’s recipe, instead I store it in the fridge.
Recipe adapted from Naturally Sweet Food in Jars by Marisa McClellan
20 small or 10 large stems (1/3 ounce/10 g) freshly cut sweet woodruff
¾ pounds (350 g) pink rhubarb stalks, roughly chopped
1½ cups (350 ml) water
¾ cup (250 g) honey
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1. Wash and dry the sweet woodruff. Remove the leaves from the stems and spread them on a large plate. Let dry and wilt for at least 8 hours, or overnight.
2. Combine chopped rhubarb and water in a medium non-reactive pot (no aluminum). Bring to a boil and let simmer for 15 minutes until the rhubarb is soft enough to be easily mashed with a wooden spoon.
3. Place a fine mesh sieve over a large bowl and strain the rhubarb and its juice through the sieve. Let it drip undisturbed. Do your best to resist the urge to press the pulp to help it release its liquid as this will result in cloudy syrup.
4. Pour the syrup into a sterilized jar and let it cool to room temperature. Add the wilted sweet woodruff leaves. Stir well so the leaves are fully immersed. Cover the jar with a screw-top lid and let it sit in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days, stirring once or twice a day.
5. Strain the syrup through a fine sieve into a saucepan. Add the honey and lemon juice and bring to a boil over high heat. Simmer for 8 to 10 minutes until slightly thickened.
6. Let cool, then pour into a sterilized bottle with a screw-top lid or a tight-fitting cork. Store in the refrigerator for up to one month.
Makes 1 pint jar (500 ml bottle)
German Rhubarb Pancakes (Quarkpuffer mit Rhabarber)
The size of German pancakes, and when and how you eat them is an ongoing debate between my American husband and me (we even contributed a little video about it to Young Germany last year).
Most German pancakes are large, much larger than their American counterparts. However not all German pancakes are as big as a dinner plate, there are also small thick ones made with quark. In German they are called Quarkpuffer.
The other day I was flipping through the German cookbook classic Bayerisches Kochbuch and saw a recipe for pancakes with raw pieces of rhubarb, similar to Apple Pancakes (Apfelpfannkuchen). The recipe was a flop though, the dough is too thin to cover the rhubarb pieces so they scorched and stuck to the pan. Then I remembered the thick squat shape of Quarkpuffer and thought they would be perfect to hold rhubarb chunks.
My rhubarb pancakes were wonderfully moist inside and crispy outside. Substituting quark with skim Greek yogurt, as I often do when a German recipe calls for quark, worked very well.
Marisa’s new book about canning with natural sweeteners inspired me to tinker with the rhubarb: I briefly cooked it in pure maple syrup. The syrup gets a pink hue and a nice rhubarb infusion. For a delicous double rhubarb flavor, drizzle it on the pancakes.
1½ cups rhubarb chunks (170 g), about ½ inch (1.25 cm) in length
4 tablespoons pure Grade A dark color maple syrup
2 large eggs
1 1/3 cups (320 g) 0% Greek yogurt or Quark (Magerquark)
1¼ cups (6 ounces/170 g) all-purpose flour
1 pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons sunflower oil
1 tablespoon butter
1. Put the rhubarb and the maple syrup in a small saucepan and bring to a gentle boil, stirring as it heats. When it starts bubbling, remove from the heat immediately. The rhubarb should still be firm. Set aside to cool.
2. In a large bowl combine eggs, Greek yogurt, flour, salt, vanilla, and baking power. Whisk until smooth.
3. Drain the rhubarb and reserve the syrup. Gently fold the rhubarb chunks into the batter with a rubber spatula.
4. Heat 1 tablespoon oil and ½ tablespoon butter in a large non-stick frying pan. Using two dinner spoons, drop 6 pancakes about ¾ inch thick into the pan and flatten the tops with the back of a spoon. Cook over medium heat until the bottom is browned and set, then carefully flip them over once and brown from the other side. Degrease on paper towels and keep warm.
5. Heat the remaining oil and butter in the pan and bake the rest of the pancakes as described. Drizzle with the rhubarb syrup or with maple syrup and serve hot.
Makes 12 pancakes
Photos by Ted Rosen