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Growing Rhubarb – Tips & Tricks for a Good Harvest

We love growing rhubarb! Rhubarb, or rheum rhabarbarum, is one of the plants most pioneers put in their garden. Rhubarb, sometimes called pie plant, is fairly simple to grow and it’s one of the earliest spring crops.

rhubarb plant

If you look at old farm gardens, you will often see a row of rhubarb not too far from the kitchen. You can spot the tall stalks and large leaves from quite a distance. Many gardens used to be edged with a row of rhubarb between the grass and the garden. 

This was a pretty good spot for it since the row of rhubarb was not plowed up and replanted every year, like most kitchen gardens were.

Growing Rhubarb – What you Need to Know

Rhubarb is a perennial, which means that it will come back each year without being replanted. Make sure you plant it in its own raised bed where you won’t have to disturb it. Like many garden plants, rhubarb needs good well-draining soil, plenty of water, lots of compost, and full sun. 

To establish your own rhubarb plant, transplant a rhubarb crown in early spring or early fall (mid-September through early October). If you transplant in the fall, make sure to mulch with 8 to 12 inches of straw or other coarse material to help it get reestablished before the ground freezes.

rhubarb flowering stalks

While most people think rhubarb is very easy to grow, I have had a hard time establishing my own rhubarb plants. I finally was successful after transplanting from a friend’s old plant instead of buying newer crowns at the nurseries. If you’re having trouble too, see if you can find a friend with a well-established plant you can cut from.

Rhubarb is a heavy feeder and needs to be planted in soil high in organic matter if you want to have large, thick rhubarb stalks. It helps the plant to cultivate around it, and to keep it mulched, weed-free, and well watered.

The plant also likes a neutral pH soil. My gardening books recommend putting wood ashes in a ring around the plants in the spring.

What Bugs Rhubarb

Most bugs won’t bother rhubarb, but slugs will. The slimy little creatures seem to enjoy munching on the leaves. Those leaves are toxic for humans but don’t seem to bother slugs. 

Putting a ring of wood ashes around the plants will discourage slugs and reserve the energy the leaves gather for the plants instead of producing a batch of slug babies.

Another common rhubarb pest is Rhubarb curculio. These nasty rusty-snout beetles rarely cause serious damage, but keeping your rhubarb plants weed-free will help prevent them anyway.

Rhubarb is susceptible to root rot, or crown rot, however. To prevent this problem, make sure to plant your rhubarb plant in well-drained soil, in an area where rhubarb has not been grown for at least four to five years.

Rhubarb Needs Cold Weather

Winter is needed for rhubarb plants to thrive, so if you want to grow it in a warm climate, you have to lift the crowns and put them in a cool place for a couple of months to fool the plant into thinking it had a winter. 

You can do this to force some winter rhubarb too. One way to do this in a northern location is to plant it in a box or pot, which you leave outside until after Christmas. Then you can bring it in the house or greenhouse and let it produce stalks early.

Your Plant Will Multiply And Fill Your Row

Over time the rhubarb crowns will multiply as healthy perennials do. When there are several plants in the spot, which was originally one plant, you can lift the plants out of the hole and clean the soil off the root balls. Then look for the divisions of the plants. 

You don’t have to be particularly careful in doing this. Rhubarb is hardy and will tolerate some fairly rough treatment. If you don’t want to have several plants, you can give away the extra plants to another gardener. 

After planting several rhubarb crowns I bought from various nurseries, I finally grew successful rhubarb by hacking away a friend’s successful plant and transplanting in the corner of my garden.

fresh rhubarb with leaves

Harvesting Rhubarb

The reward for your labor are the tart pink and green stalks of rhubarb. These can be harvested when they are thicker than a pencil, about 12”-18” long, by pulling them out and up from the plant. No need to cut the stalks – just lightly pull.

It takes one complete year of growth before you can harvest rhubarb, so make sure you don’t harvest anything the first year the plant grows.

It’s also a good idea to take the larger, outer stalks and leave the central stalks undisturbed. There is often a little tiny stalk and leaf or two in the middle that you can leave to grow and feed the plant along with a couple of the bigger leaves.

Remember, only the rhubarb stalks are edible; the leaves contain high amounts of oxalic acid and are actually poisonous. They need to be cut off and tossed in the compost.

If the plant starts to send up seed-bearing flower stalks, make sure to cut them off. Once these stalks flower, the rhubarb plant quits sending out the edible leaf stalks. If you cut the flower stalks out, you can continue to harvest stalks several more times. By the third year of your rhubarb plant, your harvesting season should be 6-8 weeks long.

Stop harvesting by mid-June though, so the plant has the rest of the growing season to strengthen itself for winter. It will stop sending up new stalks when it is time to stop harvesting.

rhubarb stalks

How to use Rhubarb

Not only do we enjoy making a simple syrup out of rhubarb for pancakes, we also love baked goods featuring rhubarb. Here are some of our favorite recipes:

We also love to freeze our extra rhubarb for use all year. It’s easy to freeze: simply chop in small pieces, flash freeze on a pan, and then bag for quick use once it’s frozen.

What’s your favorite way to eat rhubarb?

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