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The Complete Guide to Growing Rhubarb – A Spring Delight

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Rhubarb, with its vibrant crimson stalks and tart flavor, has long been a staple in gardens around the world. Originally cultivated for its medicinal properties in ancient China, rhubarb eventually found its way into culinary traditions across Europe and North America. Today, it is grown in temperate climates all over the world.

Rhubarb typically requires a period of cold temperatures to enter dormancy. This dormancy period, often called winter chill, is crucial for rhubarb plants to rest and rejuvenate before the next growing season. During this time, the plant’s growth slows down, and it sheds its leaves, conserving energy for the following spring.

Cold winters with temperatures consistently below freezing help trigger the dormancy process in rhubarb. Without an adequate chill period, rhubarb plants may struggle to thrive and may not produce stalks as vigorously in the following growing season.

However, some rhubarb varieties are bred specifically for regions with milder winters or even for greenhouse cultivation, where they may not experience the same degree of cold temperatures. These varieties may have different requirements for dormancy or may not require a dormancy period at all. If you live in a warmer climate or are growing rhubarb in a greenhouse, be sure to select a variety that is well-suited to your growing conditions.

Beyond its ornamental value, rhubarb has various culinary uses, adding a tangy twist to pies, jams, sauces, and desserts. Its distinctive tartness balances the sweetness of other ingredients, like strawberries, raspberries, and cherries.

Rhubarb offers several health benefits, containing significant amounts of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. (particularly vitamin K1, vitamin C, and fiber) From aiding digestion to promoting heart health, rhubarb’s nutritional profile adds to its appeal as a garden-to-table ingredient.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll get into everything you need to know about planting, growing, harvesting, and propagating rhubarb. Whether you’re a seasoned gardener or a novice enthusiast, join us as we explore the wonders of this versatile plant and unlock the secrets to cultivating your own bountiful rhubarb harvest.

Planting Rhubarb:

Rhubarb thrives in sunny locations with well-drained soil. When choosing a location, aim for an area that receives full sunlight or partial shade throughout the day. Additionally, ensure the soil is well-drained to prevent waterlogging, which can lead to root rot.

The best times for planting rhubarb are in early spring or fall when the soil is workable and temperatures are cooler. Planting during these seasons allows the rhubarb to establish its roots before the onset of extreme heat or cold.

Before planting, prepare the soil by incorporating organic matter such as compost or well-rotted manure. This enriches the soil with essential nutrients and improves its structure, promoting healthy root development. When planting rhubarb crowns, space them approximately 3 to 4 feet apart to allow ample room for growth. Plant the crowns with the bud eyes just below the soil surface, about 1-2 inches, ensuring they are planted at the same depth previously grown.

Growing Rhubarb:

To ensure robust growth and abundant harvests, provide rhubarb with optimal growing conditions. This includes providing adequate sunlight, typically around 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight daily.

Consistent watering is necessary, to keep the soil evenly moist but not waterlogged. Drought stress can sometimes cause rhubarb to try to produce seeds by flowering. Keep plants well-watered, especially in hot summer weather.

Fertilizing rhubarb annually with a balanced fertilizer, preferably in early spring, helps replenish nutrients in the soil and supports healthy plant growth. Apply a high nitrogen fertilizer in early spring when the stalks start to emerge. This promotes leafy growth over flowering. Alternatively, you can add a layer of rich compost in the early spring to promote growth throughout the growing season. Avoid over-fertilizing, as excessive nitrogen can promote leafy growth at the expense of stalk production.

While rhubarb is relatively resistant to pests and diseases, common issues include aphids, snails, slugs, and fungal diseases like crown rot and powdery mildew. Monitor the plants regularly for signs of pests or diseases, and promptly address any issues to prevent them from spreading.

Mulching around rhubarb plants helps conserve soil moisture, suppress weeds, and regulate soil temperature. Use organic mulches such as straw or compost, applying them in a layer around the base of the plants, taking care not to cover the crowns.

Harvesting Rhubarb:

Knowing when rhubarb is ready for harvest is essential for maximizing its flavor and tenderness. Generally, rhubarb can be harvested once the stalks reach 10 to 15 inches in and are firm to the touch. Avoid harvesting stalks from young plants during their first year to allow them to establish strong root systems.

When harvesting rhubarb, grasp the stalk near the base and gently pull it away from the plant, twisting slightly to detach it cleanly. Avoid cutting the stalks, as this can leave behind stubs that are prone to rot and disease. Grasp the stalk on the lower portion, and simultaneously pull and twist to remove the whole stalk at the base.

Harvest only a portion of the stalks from each plant, leaving at least one-third of the foliage intact to support continued growth. Do not harvest rhubarb the first year after planting. In the second year, harvest stalks for 4 weeks. Third year and beyond, stalks can be harvested for 8-10 weeks by pulling them from the plant.

By following these guidelines for planting, growing, and harvesting rhubarb, you can enjoy a bountiful harvest of this delicious and versatile perennial vegetable year after year.

Propagating Rhubarb

Propagating rhubarb is relatively straightforward and can be done through the division of mature crowns. Dividing rhubarb crowns is typically done every 3 to 4 years to maintain plant vigor and prevent overcrowding. Crowding can trigger flowering, so dividing and transplanting gives the crowns more room to grow vegetatively.

To divide a rhubarb crown, carefully dig up the plant in early spring or fall when it is dormant. Using a sharp garden knife or spade, separate the crown into sections, ensuring each division has at least one healthy bud eye and a portion of the root system attached.

When transplanting divided rhubarb crowns, choose a location with similar growing conditions to the original plant. Prepare the soil as you would for planting new rhubarb, incorporating organic matter and ensuring good drainage. Plant the divisions at the same depth as the original crowns, spacing them adequately to allow for future growth.

Propagation of rhubarb through division offers the opportunity to expand your garden and share plants with fellow gardeners. By dividing and transplanting rhubarb, you can establish new plants without the need to purchase additional stock, making it a cost-effective way to increase your rhubarb harvest.

growing rhubarb

Tips for Maximizing Rhubarb Growth

  • Remember to get the flowering heads off ASAP when you see them coming out of the center of the crown. This will send more energy to the stalks and leaves.
  • Let your rhubarb grow the first year without harvesting. This will help the plant become established.
  • As with most perennials, don’t harvest all of the stalks, but rather 1/3 to 1/2. This will help the plant remain healthy for the remainder of the year.
  • The leaves are high in oxalic acid which is toxic in high doses. You can compost them.

Popular Varieties of Rhubarb

  • Victoria
  • Canada Red, Valentine, and Cherry Red are flowering-resistant cultivars.
  • Glaskins Perpetual
  • Crimson Red – a favorite with smaller, more tender stems that are traditionally quite red.
  • Noble – it has interesting almost translucent leaves.
  • Riverside Giant – a green variety that is very cold-hardy. Other green varieties include Turkish, and German Wine (with pink speckles, reportedly one of the sweetest available)
  • Dwarf Alpine Rhubarb – a great alternative for those with small spaces

Interestingly, many gardeners get rhubarb divisions from friends and family and often don’t know what variety they have. This is the case for me. I have two varieties and have no clue what they are. But, I sure do love them!

Fun Facts About Growing Rhubarb:

Rhubarb has a rich cultural history and has been cultivated for centuries for both culinary and medicinal purposes. In ancient China, rhubarb was valued for its medicinal properties and was used to treat digestive ailments and promote overall health.

It wasn’t until the 18th century when sugar became cheap and readily available, that rhubarb became a popular food. In Victorian England, growing rhubarb gained popularity. As a dessert ingredient, it was often paired with sugar to offset its tartness. Rhubarb became synonymous with British cuisine and remains a beloved ingredient in traditional desserts such as rhubarb crumble and rhubarb pie.

Rhubarb is not only prized for its culinary uses but also for its ornamental value in the garden. With its large, vibrant leaves and striking stalks, rhubarb adds visual interest to garden beds and borders, making it a popular choice for landscape design.

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