Growing Rhubarb

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A Rhubarb Patch

A couple of generations ago, growing rhubarb was as common as keeping a vegetable garden. Many older folks called it "pie plant". Now days, it's becoming less and less common. Good rhubarb is hard to find, but MAN is it good.

If you've never tasted a fresh hot Rhubarb Pie, you just haven't lived. OK, maybe that's an exaggeration, but not by much. Rhubarb Pie is a delicate balance between sweet and tart, and the flavor of nothing else comes close. My grandmother made the best rhubarb pie ever. (but I may be a bit biased)

Growing Rhubarb: Description

Rhubarb Plant

Rhubarb is a long lived perennial plant that grows from a thick fleshy tap root, with leaves reaching 10-18 inches across on long thick stalks. Rhubarb is often one of the earliest green things to be seen in the spring garden. My spring fever always starts easing when I see the first spikes of rhubarb pushing up through the compost.

Only the stalks of rhubarb should be eaten. Rhubarb is high in oxalic acid, which gives it it's tartness. The leaves and other parts of the plant have a much higher concentration than the stalks, so eating them can make you quite sick.

Growing Rhubarb: Varieties

If you are planning on growing rhubarb, you should know that there are two distinct types - red and green stemmed. There are many cultivars of both green and red varieties.

The green stemmed type has green stalks and is typically much larger than the red types. Green varieties also tend to be more acidic than the red so are more tart.

Red varieties are typically smaller and less acidic than the green. My favorite cultivar by far is "Valentine". It's a larger than most red stem varieties, bears heavily, and makes an awesome pie.

Growing Rhubarb - Where to Find Starts

There are several ways you can get starter plants for growing rhubarb:

Neighbors - Rhubarb can easily be propagated from root stock from established plants. If you know someone who is already growing rhubarb, you may be able to talk them out of some starts. Dig down to find small starts coming off the side of the main tap root. With a sharp spade or gardening knife, cut the start away from the main tap root. There should be at least 4-6 inches of tap root to be a successful start. Some plants have divided tap roots, which can be split apart and made into individual plants.

Mail Order Nurseries - You can also purchase rhubarb starts from most mail order nursery and garden seed catalogs. Most mail order companies carry rhubarb. Any good mail order nursery will only ship plants to you when it's the right planting time for your area, and will tell you so when you order.

Rhubarb Starts (dormant rootstock)

A local nursery, if it's a really good one, will carry rhubarb plants. Most local nurseries are reputable operations, but only you can be the judge of that. If you're not comfortable with them, go with a different source.

"Super Stores" seem to have every kind of garden plant in the spring...including occasionally rhubarb. I would only buy rhubarb plants from super stores as a last resort. I've purchased plants from places like that in the past, only to find later that it wasn't the variety that it was labeled as. Generally speaking you'll get plants that are neither as healthy nor as big.

Growing Rhubarb: Planting and Care

Before you can begin growing rhubarb, and even before you order plants, you need to do some preparation work.

Rhubarb patch location before preparation

-First thing you need to do is find a location for your plants.  Rhubarb does best in a protected location, like next to a building or stone wall.

-Next you will need to prepare the planting bed. Remove sod, and dig deeply - down to two feet. A rhubarb bed should be about 18 inches wide and allow enough room to space the plants about 18 inches apart.

Rhubarb patch after preparation

-Work organic matter into the soil - the more the better. If the soil is heavy clay, add some sand to loosen it up. A 50-50 mix of soil and organics is ideal. If you have a compost pile, use it. If not, use a mixture of peat moss, composted manure, potting soil or something similar.

When the soil is light and easy to work with your hands, it's ready for planting.

Soil from the rhubarb patch before preparation
Soil from the rhubarb patch after preparation

-Plant your new rhubarb plants in the spring and space them about 18 inches apart. Plant them with the crown (the place where the top meets the root) about one inch below soil level.

-Water them in well, and keep the soil moist - not soaked - for the first 3-4 weeks. You can expect to see leaves sprouting within a couple of weeks of planting.

-Don't pick ANY rhubarb from your plants in their first year. Give them a chance to get established. The second year it's ok to pick some, but you really shouldn't "harvest" until the third year.

-If seed heads sprout, cut them off as soon as you recognize them. They usually grow from the center of the plant, and grow straight up. Before they open they are club shaped.

Early spring rhubarb shoots

-Each spring as the plants start to sprout, and again in the fall, you should put 2-4 inches of compost or mulch on your rhubarb plants.

My grandpa always used horse manure for compost on his plants. GROSS you may say...but he had been growing rhubarb for a long time and had the biggest, healthiest rhubarb plants of anyone I knew.

NOTE: Don't use any other type of manure (chicken, cow, sheep, rabbit) unless it has been composted first. The ammonia in most "fresh" manure will burn - if not kill - your plants.

Growing Rhubarb - Harvesting & preserving

Rhubarb is one of the earliest spring crops. Pick rhubarb in the spring as soon as plants have plenty of leaves. You can continue to pick for 6-8 weeks.

First rhubarb harvest

Rhubarb is easy to pick, just grab the stalk and pull gently down, away and slightly to the side, increasing pressure until the stalk pulls away. The entire stalk should pull away from the base of the plant, not break off above it. You'll get a feel for it after you pull a couple.

Never take more than about a third of the stalks from a plant at any time. After a couple of weeks you can harvest again.

Cut off the leaves just at the stalk, cut the bottom half inch of the stalk as well. Wash soil off of the stalks, and allow them to drain.

cutting rhubarb for cooking or freezing

Cut Rhubarb stalks into roughly 3/4" length pieces for stewing or pie.

Rhubarb freezes well and can be kept for quite a long time if vacuum sealed before freezing.

Frozen rhubarb - ready for making a pie anytime of year!

For loads of really great recipes and lots of additional information on Rhubarb check out this site: Savor the Rhubarb

Growing rhubarb is easy once you get your plants established. The plants are hardy, live for decades, provide you a source of vegetable high in vitamin C and ask for very little care in return. Give it a try...You won't be disappointed.

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