I recently had a friend ask me questions about Rhubarb. When I worked at Garden Centers before starting this blog, Rhubarb always seemed to be a source of confusion, and people were always asking LOTS of questions about it. So I thought HEY, what a great blog topic!
I think that if I were to take a poll on the streets, I would estimate that half of the people I talked to knew what Rhubarb was; a quarter would know what it was and hate it; and the last quarter would have no idea what I was talking about.
Rhubarb is a very old-fashioned plant, that has been used for centuries as a medicinal cleanser (aka: it makes you poop and cleans you out). Only in the last 100-200 years has Rhubarb been used for its food qualities, here in America. Rhubarb grows best in US zones where the ground freezes in winter. Plants require an extended chilling period with temperatures below 40 degrees to produce a crop. As a result, Rhubarb is commonplace in gardens throughout the coldest sections of the country, although it can be grown as far south as Zone 7.
I think that as we have drawn away from growing our own foods, plants like Rhubarb have gotten lost in the cracks, allowing a whole slew of people to not know what Rhubarb is, what to do with it, or how to grow it.
Rhubarb is a hardy perennial vegetable, although used as a “fruit” in recipes today.
A Rhubarb plant can produce for 10-15 years before it needs to be divided. But the same strand of Rhubarb can indefinitely produce.
The Rhubarb in my garden is from my grandmother (84 years old), who got it from HER great-grandmother. How old my strand of Rhubarb actually is, I may never truly know.
Rhubarb and other old heirloom plants are my favorite. I think of them as “old souls” just waiting for a chance to be revived and come back to life in my garden. But talking about Heirloom varieties is for another day.
How to Plant Rhubarb:
Realistically I would love everyone to go find a friend or a neighbor who grows the old Heirloom varieties of Rhubarb, dig up a few crowns and then plant them in their gardens. But I know that probably isn’t going to happen 9 out of 10 times.
The second best thing is to go buy Rhubarb crowns from your local nursery.
They’ll look like this:
I like planting crowns verses plants because honestly you’re going to pay a lot less for a crown that you’ll plant and will come up fairly easily. If you buy Rhubarb already potted and growing (say in a 4inch pot) you’re looking at paying 2-3 times what a crown costs. I have seen crowns planted at the same time as transplants, and within 2 weeks are almost the same size.
Crowns are also a little more fail proof. You don’t have to worry about covering too much stem or killing off part of the plant by burying it too deep.
You can also start Rhubarb from seed. But why start it from seed when it is SO much faster and easier to start from crowns? Just my opinion.
Before you start planting, remember that Rhubarb is a perennial, and you’re going to want to create a permanent bed for it. Being transplanted is no big deal to the Rhubarb plant (I swear my grandmother moves hers every few years just because she doesn’t like it where it’s at.) But keep in mind that whenever you move it you are going to need to wait at least 2-3 years before harvesting on it. This same procedure also goes for planting Rhubarb crowns.
You need to wait 2 years before harvesting after you plant Rhubarb crowns so that the root systems can develop and grow.
Rhubarb is a heavy feeder, so using a good compost while planting is key. Rhubarb can grow in a variety of soil conditions, but ideally it likes a sandy loam soil. (A well draining soil) Really that’s all that matters when planting Rhubarb. If you don’t have a well draining soil the crowns will rot and you can say bye-bye to ever having Rhubarb plants.
To plant your Rhubarb, dig a hole 1-2 feet deep. Mix the soil from your dug out hole with compost and fill it back up until you’re 2-3 inches from the surface. Place your crown (bud side facing skywards) and cover with more soil/compost mixture. (2-3 inches worth of soil on top) Each plant should be at least 3 to 4 feet away from each other.
Give your crowns a good drink after planting.
Rhubarb likes even moisture. What this means is that plants don’t like it dry but they also don’t like wet feet. (Basically the Goldilocks of the Vegetable garden) Mulching with straw or hay after your Rhubarb has grown 3-4 inches helps keep moisture levels even.
You can side dress Rhubarb plants with compost and/or fertilizer mid summer and fall.
BIG SIDE NOTE:
DO NOT LET SEED HEADS GROW. I can’t stress this enough. Although seed heads might look pretty, your plant will spend all of its energy trying to reproduce if you let the seed heads grow. This will hurt the stalk and leaf production that year and for the next year. Your Rhubarb may taste bland for the rest of the season and the following year.
How to Harvest Rhubarb:
The number one thing to remember is not to harvest Rhubarb for at least the first 2 years. The second year you can harvest some stems but leave the rest alone. (And still cut back that flower stalk!!)
The third year is when you can really start harvesting your Rhubarb plants. Rhubarb is technically “ripe” all season long, but you should only harvest from Spring to mid-summer. Rhubarb plants need time to gather energy for the upcoming winter, and by not harvesting from mid-summer on you allow the plant to store that energy instead of trying to produce more stalks.
You can harvest stalks when they are around a foot long and the leaves are completely developed. There is a misconception that the stalks are ripe and ready when they are red. This isn’t always the case. Some varieties change color as the season progresses. As long as the stalks are around a foot long and have substantial leaf growth, harvest away.
Never harvest your entire plant at once. Try to always use the “1/3” method. This means you should only harvest 1/3 of the plant at a time.
You can use a sharp knife to cut the stems away from the main plant, getting as close to the crown as possible. You can also grab the stalk at its base and pull and twist to remove. It should cleanly come free of the crown. This is the preferred method to harvest Rhubarb, as it won’t leave a stub for possible disease and rot to enter the plant.
REMOVE THE LEAVES.
Rhubarb leaves are poisonous and should never be consumed. They contain oxalic acid, which is a nephrotoxic and corrosive acid. This can cause serious kidney damage potentially leading to death.
Although a 140 pound person would need to eat about 10 pounds of rhubarb leaves to die, a small amount still has the ability to make a person sick.
You can throw them on your compost pile to decompose.
Rhubarb will keep in your refrigerator for about 2 weeks.
You can also preserve Rhubarb by canning it. You’ll need about 2 pounds per quart jar.
Cut Rhubarb into 1 inch pieces and place in a large bowl.
Pour 1/2 to one cup of sugar onto the Rhubarb and stir.
Let this sit for three to four hours until the Rhubarb is floating in syrup.
Heat the Rhubarb and syrup to boiling on the stove.
Pack into quart jars, leaving a 1 inch gap at the top of the jar.
Clean the rims of the jars and place lids on firmly.
Process in a hot water bath, boiling for 10 minutes.
I personally like to freeze my Rhubarb. It’s a quick and easy way for me to be able to continually harvest for a couple months and not constantly be breaking out my huge canning pot.
I wash my Rhubarb in cold water and cut them into 1-1 1/2 inch pieces.
Place cut pieces in large zip locks, seal it, date it, and pop it in the freezer. Frozen Rhubarb should keep around a year.
You can try to measure your Rhubarb as you are putting it in plastic zip locks, but once you thaw it out, it loses a lot of its shape (loss of moisture) and reduces the amount you actually have. (Frozen you have 3 cups-thawed you have 1 cup).
Have any tips or question on growing Rhubarb?