Rhubarb is one of those garden plants that folks either love or hate. Those who love rhubarb eagerly look forward to the first harvest of this perennial plant each spring so they can savor the tart flavor in a cherished dessert recipe. Growing rhubarb in your own garden is incredibly easy and this carefree plant will provide a family with an ample supply of edible stalks for many years.
For many of us, our first encounter with rhubarb was in Grandma’s garden. Well known for its delicious qualities, rhubarb was sometimes referred to as “pie plant” in days past. Grandma may have been growing rhubarb near her strawberry plants. Rhubarb and strawberries go very well together and conveniently, both fruits are harvested at about the same time each year.
Rhubarb, or Rheum x hybridum, grows well in climates that experience cold winters. Growing rhubarb in growing zones 9 and higher is futile, as this plant needs to experience cold weather before it will begin growing in the spring. When temperatures climb above 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, rhubarb will wilt and stop growing.
To begin growing rhubarb, purchase healthy plants from a nursery or acquire a divided plant from a gardening friend. Rhubarb comes in varieties with either red or green stalks, and although the red varieties are often preferred for their lovely color, green varieties are often much more productive and are also more heat tolerant.
Rhubarb is a tough plant, but for the most success in growing rhubarb, choose and prepare the planting area carefully. Because rhubarb is a perennial that will return year after year for up to twenty years, it should be located where it will not need to be disturbed. Rhubarb prefers to grow in full sun but it will tolerate light shade. A growing rhubarb plant is fairly tolerant of acidic soil and it will grow in soils with a pH as low as 5.0, but it is happiest in soils with a pH between 6.0 and 6.8.
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Although you can begin growing rhubarb by planting it from seed, it will take much longer for the plants to become harvestable, and a seed-grown plant will not grow true to the parent plant. Even if the parent plant produced lovely red stems, its seeds may grow into plants that produce only green stems.
Well draining soil is also essential for growing rhubarb. If you have clay or compacted soil that does not drain well, it is advisable to plant rhubarb in a raised bed. Crown rot is one of the few problems to effect rhubarb, and poorly draining soils will encourage crown rot.
Begin growing rhubarb by planting it in early spring. If planting one rhubarb plant – enough to feed a family of four – dig a hole about two feet wide and just as deep. Mix the soil with an equal amount of compost or aged manure, then partially backfill the hole with this mixture. Set the crown and roots on the mounded soil mixture and continue filling the planting hole until the buds are an inch or two below the surface. Be careful to not pack the soil tightly around the buds. Once planted, water the plant well and continue to give the plant about an inch of water weekly. Once the new shoots begin to emerge, the plant can be mulched with compost or shredded leaves to help keep the roots cool and moist.
A single rhubarb plant can grow to be four feet wide and up to three feet tall, so give your growing rhubarb plant plenty of room. If you wish to plant more than one rhubarb plant, space them about three feet or more apart. If planting several rhubarb plants in rows, each row should also be three feet apart.
A growing rhubarb plant needs time to establish itself, so no stalks should be harvested the same year it is planted. The following year, if the plant is growing well, a few of the small stalks may be harvested if you have a strong hankering for a taste of rhubarb, but it isn’t until the plant’s third year that it can be harvested fully.
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To harvest rhubarb, the entire plant can be cut down at once, or individual stalks may be harvested as needed. Stalks may either be cut with a knife at the soil line, or pull on them gently and the entire stalk will separate from the crown.
Always cut the leaves from the stalks as soon as the stalks are removed from the plant. Rhubarb contains oxalate, which is present in all parts of the plant but the highest concentrations of oxalate are in the leaves and roots. Poisoning will occur if leaves or roots are ingested, so only the stalks should be eaten.
If you are growing rhubarb in your garden, children should be made aware that they should never eat the large, attractive leaves of the rhubarb plant.
Rhubarb is harvested mainly over a 4-6 week period in the spring and early summer. Later in the summer, the plant will produce seed stalks, and once the plant puts out seed stalks it will stop producing the edible leaf stalks. The edible stalks have a shape like the letter D, but the seed stalks will be round and thick, and they will grow much taller than the edible stalks. The seed stalks can be removed from the plant as soon as they appear. Removing them will help the plant put more energy into growing bigger and better edible stalks.
Once planted, growing rhubarb is almost effortless. The large leaves shade out most weeds, and very few pests bother the plant. Occasionally slugs will feed on lower leaves, but removing those leaves will solve the problem as the slugs will not be able to reach higher-growing leaves.
In the fall or early winter, feed rhubarb by applying compost or composted manure around the plant, being careful to not cover the crowns. Alternately, apply a couple handfuls of 10-10-10 fertilizer around each plant in the early spring.
Growing rhubarb doesn’t have to be limited to those of us with a great deal of garden space. Rhubarb can also be grown in containers in a patio garden. The container should be at least 24 inches wide and just as deep, and it should provide ample drainage. For potting soil, use a 50/50 mixture of good quality potting soil and compost, or an equal mixture of potting soil and composted manure. Just like growing rhubarb in the ground, a container-grown rhubarb plant needs about an inch of water each week and should not be harvested until its third year.
With very little effort, you can enjoy growing this lovely old-fashioned harbinger of spring and will soon have enough to share with your rhubarb-loving friends too.