The other day I watched my dad transplant a rhubarb plant. The day before, my husband carefully dug that plant out of the raised bed behind our soon to be sold home; I was so proud of his effort when I saw Rhuby’s long beautiful tap root and felt confident about her survival, despite the less than optimal conditions and timing for transplanting.
This was a plant which we moved from our garden in Illinois just four summers ago, a plant that came out of our neighbor Edna’s abundant garden three years before that. I love rhubarb; it’s easy to cook and truly delicious in a pie or compote or even pickled. But what I appreciate most of all is its grand reappearance every spring, its red “eggs” that pop out of the soil and give birth to showy red stalks and enormous leaves.
When I transplanted Rhuby in New Jersey I did it quickly: I dug a hole and stuck her in it thinking I’d move her again once we were settled. But she thrived in that place. Today we are relocating to a climate that is too warm for plants like rhubarb, plants that need to die back to the ground and rest before they spring back to life.
My father moves slowly, deliberately and quietly. He’s a gentle farmer. He selected a spot along the fenced edge of an established bed where potatoes and raspberries and rhubarb, and other vigorous growers were living large and enjoying life. To me the soil looked hard but my dad turned it easily with a long handled spade. Getting down on his hands and knees he worked the soil with his hands, rubbing out the clumps and lumps and moving the earth, digging five holes.
With a narrow hand spade he divided the woody root, and then tore it apart with his hands. I thought my dad was going to just dig one hole and drop the plant into it like I did; I did not realize he was going to divide it and make five new plants out of one, although it made perfect sense to do so.
If a plant can feel pain I think a little of it transferred to me as I watched my dad work. It got me thinking about raising a family, about how parents and children and their children and their children’s children divide like a root sometimes, and about the move my husband and I were undertaking. After I asked my dad how he knew how to locate the best place to divide the root and he admitted it was often an inexact science we agreed that in the end rhubarb is pretty resilient; it wants to grow. Like us.
Once he had five good pieces of root, each sprouting one or two small leaves and a perhaps a straggly stalk of rhubarb, my dad placed them in the prepared holes and with his hands began to sweep the soil he had removed back into the holes, starting with coarse soil and ending with the fine soil he had rubbed free of lumps and stones.
I noted how my dad buried those roots far enough apart so the plants would have the space to thrive, but close enough so that in the height of the growing season their stalks and leaves might touch and even provide a bit of shade for one another. I watched him, his opposing thumbs and forefingers forming the shape of a heart around each stem as he pressed down a dressing of earth, and tucking each new plant in like parent does a child at bedtime.