This year we will be selling and growing rhubarb. I grew up in Pennsylvania and my grandmother’s garden always had many robust, red stalked plants growing. You’ll be happy to discover rhubarb is a hardy and problem-free perennial. Plant a few roots (or crowns) and then every spring thereafter you can treat your family to one of spring’s most refreshing tastes. In the kitchen, you’ll like rhubarb’s tangy taste and versatility—it plays nicely with other flavors in stuffing, sauces for meat and fish, tarts, pies and preserves.
We have chosen a cultivar called Crimson Cherry. Rhubarb prefers a cooler growing environment but this one is suited to our southern California climate. Buds on the plant start to open when air temperature moves into the 40’s at night. Four to six plants provides adequate harvest for a family of four. Read on for growing information regarding this perennial that is technically a vegetable used as a fruit.
Site: Locate a spot in your garden that gets morning sun and afternoon shade or over all partial shade. Once temperatures rise into the 80’s consistently, rhubarb will produce seed stalks and flowers and stop being productive.
Soil: Rhubarb needs deep, moist but well-drained soil. Before planting, prepare a hole at least 1.5 feet deep and 1.5 feet wide. Loosen the soil and enrich it with a 6-inch layer of compost. Add a handful of bonemeal if your soil is low in phosphorus.
Planting: Set the crowns of rhubarb divisions 1 to 2 inches below the soil surface. Set container-grown plants level with the soil surface or slightly lower if the surrounding soil is likely to settle. Keep the plants moist, and mulch in spring and fall with several inches of straw or grass clippings. Keep mulch away from the crown to avoid rot problems. Remove any seedstalks that form—they sap the plants’ energy.
Spacing: Space plants 3 to 4 feet apart in rows 6 feet apart.
Fertilizing: Fertilize every year in early spring by spreading a few inches of compost over the area.
Special hint: Divide crowns every 4 – 5 years to continue good stalk production.
Harvesting: LEAVES contain toxic substance, Oxalic Acid, DO NOT EAT!
Harvest lightly one year after planting. Pick only stems that are at least 1 inch thick the second year; then harvest for one to two months in the third year. Snap off rhubarb stalks by twisting them sharply at the base. Or cut them off with a sharp knife, using care to avoid injuring underground buds. Cut off and compost the leaves as you harvest (don’t eat the leaves—they’re poisonous). Starting when the leaves are expanding in the spring, you may pick one-third to one-half of the new shoots from a full-size plant. Cool, moist weather encourages plants to produce fat new stalks; keep picking until the stalks that emerge are pencil-thin.
Recipes: As our experience with rhubarb grows, we will add to our recipe file.