Growing Rhubarb

Fresh rhubarb mixed with strawberries (or other seasonal fruits) in a lattice-topped pie; chunky rhubarb sauce with a dollop of whipped cream; rhubarb preserves; rhubarb-chile salsa; rhubarb cobbler with ice cream — all of these and more, plus the natural beauty of the
plant itself. Here’s how to grow your own patch in full sun and well-drained soil.

Begin by purchasing crowns or divisions. For best results, work (dig) the soil as deeply as possible. This encourages deep growing, strong and healthy roots. Dig a hole large enough to accommodate the rhubarb roots (about 12 inches deep and wide). Place one plant in the
hole and backfill with 2/3 garden soil and 1/3 well-rotted compost or composted steer manure. Be sure the top of the roots are even with the soil line. If you’re planting more than one crown, space 24 to 36 inches apart. Water and top dress with mulch.

Rhubarb is drought tolerant, but providing adequate water, especially in the first summer, will ensure optimal development. Also, rhubarb plants are heavy feeders. Be sure to top dress every spring with compost or well-rotted manure. Plants are usually not affected by
insect pests.

Some gardeners enjoy seeing the tall creamy white flower spikes, however, flowers rob the plants of energy, so you may want to cut the stems off at the base.

Most experts agree that rhubarb should not be harvested the first year. Harvest sparingly (for a week or two) the second year and more generously the third year (4 to 6 weeks). To harvest, grasp an outer stalk at the base and, with a slight twisting motion, pull firmly. All
leaves of the plant are toxic. Cut them off and dispose of them.

Rhubarb is a long-lived plant. In future years, if you have an overabundance of stalks, chop and freeze them until needed. Divisions from your own plants should include a bud with the roots.

There are many rhubarbs — Rheum rhabarbarum is native to Mongolia and was first cultivated in England in the early 1500’s as a medicinal plant. Other rhubarbs were cultivated in China much earlier and brought to Europe by Marco Polo. In the 18th Century, rhubarb became popular for eating. For the best flavor, grow your own!