If you love rhubarb/strawberry pie or rhubarb jam, it pays to grow some of your own. This delicious perennial vegetable is easy to grow once established. It is rarely bothered by pests or diseases, and with just a little work every spring, your plants will remain productive year after year. Be aware, though: only the stems of rhubarb are edible. The leaves contain oxalic acid in toxic quantities, which is especially dangerous for small children.
Planting and Growing Rhubarb
Rhubarb can be started from seed sown directly in the garden, although this isn't recommended because it takes so much time to get from seed to a plant large enough to harvest from. More commonly, rhubarb is grown from crowns, which can be purchased from nurseries or catalogs in spring. If you have a neighbor with a rhubarb plant, ask them for a division -- they'll probably be more than happy to give you one.
Rhubarb grows best in full sun, in fertile, rich, moist, well drained soil. However, it does adapt well to most garden conditions. Work some compost into the soil around the rhubarb each year, and mulch well.
Rhubarb is really a very pretty edible. I remember my neighbor having her rhubarb planted behind her garage where no one ever saw it. What a waste! Add rhubarb to your ornamental borders, or make it a centerpiece of your vegetable garden. The pretty red stalks and bright green foliage really stand out, and look good for most of the gardening season.
After about ten years in one spot, the plant may become too crowded to produce as well as it used to. To rejuvenate the plant, dig it up in early spring while it is still dormant. Don’t worry about severing large roots when removing the rootball from the ground. Using a knife or spade, divide the crown into several sections, making sure that each section contains at least one bud or “eye.” Replant the sections into different spots in the garden. If you can’t replant the sections right away, store them in the refrigerator and rehydrate them by soaking them in a bucket of water for a few hours before planting.
You can start picking rhubarb once the stalks are roughly the width of your finger. Harvest the stems by pulling them firmly and cleanly from the base of the plant. Cut the leaves from the stems with a sharp knife and compost. Rhubarb’s flavor is better earlier in summer, and harvesting generally stops by late July, when the stems start to become dry and bitter.
Like asparagus, your rhubarb plants will need time to become established. Don't harvest the stalks in the first year. You can harvest sparingly the second year (no more than half of the stalks). In the third and following years, you can harvest freely. If you notice the plants becoming less productive, consider dividing them as described above, or cut back on your harvesting for a season to see if the plant bounces back after being able to store more energy.
Rhubarb Problems and Pests
Rhubarb rarely suffers from pest or disease problems.
Recommended Rhubarb Varieties
There are several good, tried-and-true varieties of rhubarb out there. Here are some of my favorites:
- 'Colossal' has absolutely huge leaves and stems.
- 'Crimson Cherry' has bright red stalks, and is very ornamental.
- 'Victoria' has greenish stalks early on that mature to red.
- ‘Mammoth Red’ is a vigorous producer, resulting in plants 4 feet tall.
Rhubarb is an easy, reliable edible for your garden. I hope this article has convinced you to try growing some in your garden this year.