Rhubarb is a cool-season vegetable that has a 2000 year history of cultivation. In its early history, rhubarb was used strictly as a medicinal herb. It wasn’t until much later that people discovered its many delicious culinary uses. This tough perennial vegetable belongs to the buckwheat family and is one of the few garden edibles grown for only the stems. The leaves and roots are toxic, so plant your rhubarb patch where children or pets cannot reach it.

How to Grow Rhubarb

 

  • Rhubarb is planted in spring using transplants called crowns that are purchased at the garden center. Select healthy crowns that have at least one large bud that’s called an “eye.” In the future, you may be able to divide your healthy rhubarb plants to create additional plantings.
  • Because rhubarb is a perennial, carefully consider where to plant it. The vegetable can grow to 4 feet across and fill a garden space quickly, then return early each spring.

Prepare

  • Rhubarb does well in garden beds or raised beds that are filled with a rich, well-draining soil. Start by digging in organic compost or well-aged manure once soil can be worked in spring. Rhubarb grows best with large doses of nitrogen, so make sure the planting space is well amended.

Plant

  • Rhubarb can be planted in spring when soil temperatures reach about 50 degrees. Plant crowns so the eyes are about 2 inches below the soil surface; space plants 24-48 inches apart and 36-48 inches between rows.
  • It’s also possible to plant rhubarb in late fall for a crop that grows next spring.
  • When planting, be sure to leave the soil a little looser over the crown to make it easier for leaves to sprout and grow.
  • Water in plants as soon as possible; don’t let the new plantings linger in dry soil.

Maintain

  • Rhubarb can practically grow itself once it’s established in the garden. To help it along, sidedress the plants with a high-nitrogen fertilizer and water deeply on a consistent basis.
  • Rhubarb will grow in spring and then slow down in summer. Be sure to keep up with watering to ensure a good fall crop.
  • If the weather suddenly turns too hot for rhubarb, the plants will produce seed stalks. Cut these from the plant and toss away.

Harvest

  • It’s best to wait an entire season before harvesting any rhubarb stems. Giving plants this extra time helps it grow a strong root system. In the second season some stalks can be harvested by cutting at the base. Refrain from harvesting all the stalks each season.
  • In fall when the plant resumes growing, the cold weather will help the stalks turn from green to pink to red. The color change signals the stalks are ready to harvest.
  • Remember: only the rhubarb stalks are edible. Do not eat the leaves; remove and discard rhubarb leaves.
  • Use fresh rhubarb within a few days of harvesting. Because this vegetable is extremely tart on its own, most recipes call for large amounts of added sugar. Strawberries also combine deliciously with rhubarb for pie fillings, jams and sauces.
  • Once plants are established, rhubarb will start growing again in cool spring weather, then grow slowly through summer and fall. Plants will die back to the ground once freezing temperatures hit.

Companion Plants

Plant rhubarb with other perennial edibles:

  • Asparagus
  • Strawberries
  • Horseradish

Materials for Success

  • Soil thermometer
  • High-quality compost and manure
  • Rhubarb crowns
  • High nitrogen fertilizer for sidedressing
  • Soaker hose

To learn more about growing rhubarb or about growing your own edible vegetable garden, contact the pros at Nick’s Garden Center. 

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