The ultimate rhubarb guide to growing, harvesting, preserving and cooking with rhubarb. Lots of tips and recipe ideas for both sweet and savory dishes.
Rhubarb is one of those edible plants that’s considered a vegetable, but used like a fruit – in fact a US court decided in the 40s that it was a fruit for import regulations because that’s how it’s often used (source). It’s a perennial plant and if you can get it established in a place it likes, it’s pretty carefree, coming back year after year with minimal care. So it needs a permanent place – a rhubarb patch – where it can happily live and provide you with some of the first fruits of the gardening season.
Rhubarb is such a versatile plant to cook with and preserve – it can become a meat sauce, ice cream sauce, pie & cake filling, jam, drink and more – and yet is still a mystery to some. I often get questions asking what to make with rhubarb or how to grow it, so I’m putting all the rhubarb growing information and recipes that I’ve collected into one ultimate rhubarb guide so you’ll have one place to come for rhubarb answers (and I’ll have a place to send people!).
First, did you know that rhubarb is a member of the buckwheat family? It also has good amounts of vitamins C, K, and the mineral magnesium as well as some fiber and protein. Most people are aware that the large leaves are poisonous (I always feel sorry for the people who discovered stuff like this…), but I didn’t know until we moved into a new house with rhubarb that not all rhubarb varieties have red stalks. Some produce mostly green stalks with barely a hint of red and I’ve learned that the green-stalk variety is hardier and easier to grow than the more popular red colored plants, so if you’re having problems getting rhubarb established, switching your variety may be the way to go.
How to Grow Rhubarb
- Plant in full sun and amend the soil a bit with compost (note: in warmer climates, rhubarb may do better in partial shade, though the stems will not grow as thick) before planting rhubarb crowns about an inch below the surface.
- If planting more than one plant, set them at least 3 feet apart – a well established plant can grow huge!
- Water well and consistently throughout the growing season, especially in the plant’s first two years. After that, I’ve found them to be fairly drought-resistent – they will die back if not watered, but will produce again the next spring. Of course that’s not the way to get the best, biggest stalks, but if you can’t provide water throughout the entire season once it’s established, it should be okay.
- The only fertilizer it needs is a yearly topping of compost. Keeping the ground mulched with a layer of the compost, grass clippings or straw is a way to keep the ground moist as well. Just keep any mulch away from the crown of the plant, which can encourage rot.
- To prepare your plant for winter, after the first hard frost, cut back any remaining stalks and dress with a light 2 inch layer of compost, leaves, or hay to protect the roots through the winter.
- Do not harvest the stalks at all the first year after planting to allow the plant time to grow with it’s full energy (although if it looks really healthy, it probably wouldn’t hurt to harvest 2 or 3 stalks to make some muffins with!).
- The only other thing to remember is to remove any flowering stalks that may appear (some varieties form more of these than others), as they take away the plant’s energy we want to go to root and stalk formation.
- Established clumps should be trimmed or divided every 4 to 5 years – when the stalks get small and spindly or when the crown is visibly crowded. This will help the plant keep growing nice thick stems. You can dig around the edges and trim the crown down to 4 or 5 buds or you can dig most of the plant up and gift somebody with a rhubarb plant.
I’m including a picture of my other rhubarb plant to illustrate what was mentioned in #1 above – rhubarb grown in more shady conditions will have thinner stalks and the plant and leaves won’t be as large. If at all possible, move to a sunnier spot unless the shade is allowing your plant to grow in warmer climates. Although rhubarb isn’t known for growing well in the hotter southern United States, providing shade and water (and choosing the greener variety) may allow you to grow it successfully – the top growth will probably die back at temperatures consistently above 90 degrees, causing the plant to appear dormant, but as temperatures lower in later summer the leaves should start to grow again then or the next spring.
If all you can grow is rhubarb with thinner stalks, I’d vote for growing them! If you live in an area where rhubarb isn’t sold that you know of, the easiest way to make sure you can have some each season is to find a way to grow it.
How to Harvest Rhubarb
- To harvest individual stalks: the easiest way to gather the stalks is to pull up from the base of the plant, twisting slightly as you pull. Most will come out pretty quickly this way, but if some don’t, you can use a knife to cut a stalk off at the base, you just have to be careful not to cut anything you don’t plan on harvesting – which is why I prefer the pull-and-twist method. Cut off the leaves and compost them.
- When & how much to harvest: I’ve read various, sometimes conflicting, methods for when and how much to harvest your rhubarb – from only picking 1/3 of the plant during a season to cutting all the stems at once for a one-time harvest, and only spring harvesting to an all-season harvest. I aim for the middle, harvesting only the fattest stalks for about a two-month period, or until most of the new stalks are really looking thin. Every once in awhile, some stalks will look good again in the fall and I’ll harvest a few, but my main harvest is in the spring.
- To Freeze: trim and slice and pack raw into freezer bags, removing as much air as possible (I use the straw trick). You can blanch the rhubarb first, but I don’t (are you surprised after this and this?) and it seems to come out the same for me – either way it’s a much softer end-product, but still works fine for sauces or making jam or other canned items and sometimes even muffins if the slices are diced and added still slightly frozen.
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