When the rhubarb starts poking its alien heads out of the ground, you know spring is finally here. The alien heads become giant deep green leaves that contrast beautifully with bright red stalks. Beautiful, easy to grow, and delicious, rhubarb belongs in every yard.
It’s easiest to start with a rhubarb plant, which you can get from a nursery or from a friend. Choose a warm location for the earliest harvests such as next to your house or on the sunny side of a fence. Rhubarb will take partial shade, so the east or west side of the house works well, or at the edge of a forest like how it would grow in nature. Keep in mind that once you plant rhubarb it is very difficult to remove.
Rhubarb loves rich, well-drained soil, so if your soil is poor, you may want to spend some time improving it with compost or a sheet mulch bed. Set the plant in the soil at the same depth it was in the pot or in the ground and water it in well. Mulch around it to prevent encroachment from weeds or grass. Let it get established for a year before you start harvesting from it.
Rhubarb loves manure and can be fertilized liberally with any manure that isn’t too hot (high in nitrogen). Goat or rabbit can be used straight, but chicken, horse, or cow should be composted or mixed with plenty of straw. Cover the manure with leaves or wood chips to keep the smell down and allow soil microbes to break it down.
Rhubarb should be divided every 5-6 years to keep from getting overcrowded. In the spring, when they are emerging from the ground, choose a section that has at least 3 eyes. Use a sharp spade to cut it off from the main plant. Repeat if necessary. If you don’t take too much off the mother plant you can still harvest from it that year. Otherwise it is best to wait one year.
In years past, my dad has been unable to find someone to take his rhubarb divisions, so he just tossed them into the woods next to his patch. Wouldn’t you know, they rooted and now he has more rhubarb than he knows what to do with!
When you harvest rhubarb just grab the stalk and twist gently while you pull and the whole stalk will come out. If you use a knife, you will leave a piece of the stalk in there which might rot and damage the plant. Twist the leaf off and leave it beneath the plant as mulch. This will keep weeds down, the ground moist, and return nutrients to the soil.
Some people like to harvest all of their rhubarb at one time for jam or preserves, but be sure to let it grow back again before fall. If you don’t let it recover, it may not have enough energy to come back the next spring. I prefer to just harvest when I need it and enjoy having a consistent supply. Towards the end of the summer, the stalks may become tough and stringy, so test them before you bake your pie.
Preserving and Eating
Rhubarb is easy to freeze, just chop it up and put it in a ziplock bag and you can have your favorite rhubarb desserts all winter long. It also makes excellent jam, chutney, BBQ sauce, etc. Growing up my mom would make rhubarb sauce popsicles for a healthy summer treat and her famous rhubarb crunch, which has graced every important summer event for as long as I can remember. Thanks mom!
- 1 cup flour
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 tsp salt and cinnamon
- ½ cup butter, melted
- 3- 4 cups rhubarb
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 Tbs tapioca
- 1 tsp vanilla or almond extract
- Mix together first three ingredients with a fork, then add melted butter. Mixture will be crumbly.
- Pat one half of this mixture into lightly greased 8 x 8 pan. Add rhubarb to almost top of pan.
- In a small saucepan, cook water, sugar and tapioca until slightly thickened. Remove from heat and add vanilla. Pour over rhubarb.
- Cover with remaining brown sugar mixture.
- Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Tastes best the next day!