Rhubarb is the “hot” new perennial vegetable that adds that tangy, tart flavour to dessert menus, sauces, fruit combos and compotes. It’s also hard to beat for pies and crumbles. Rhubarb is so very useful in our cooking and yet, far too few are being grown in our gardens, even small space ones. I mention this now because it’s an ideal time to plant rhubarb.
Rhubarb is very hardy, even in the Prairies, so it will do well in our area. There are a number of good varieties. Crimson Cherry is a large red-stalked variety; Strawberry is the thinness red-stalked type; and Victoria is, perhaps, the most well-known with large greenish-red stalks. All of these are great for the home garden.
What many folks don’t know is rhubarb plants need to become established for at least a couple of years before you can begin to harvest. Most rhubarb varieties are sold as root chunks divided up into one or two eye shoots, but if you can find a well-established container grown plant, so much the better.
Plant rhubarb at the soil line so just the eyes or new shoots are barely above ground. You’ll need well-drained soil and raised beds are best. Working lots of well-rotted manure into the soil and dipping the roots in a root booster or fish fertilizer solution will do wonders to give the plants a good start. If you set out more than one clump, keep them about three feet ( one meter) apart.
Once growing, keep feeding them, especially with root starter fertilizer to get the roots well established. I also love to top dress the plants with composted steer manure to keep them growing, particularly in late spring. If white flower stalks appear, cut them off at the base so all the plant’s energy goes into developing the foliage.
Well-established plants can be harvested for about five to eight weeks, but make sure lots of stalks are left on the plant to keep it growing vegetatively. Once the weather turns hot or the stalks become thin, stop harvesting and let the plant recover. When you harvest rhubarb, do not use a knife but rather pull the stalks away in a sideways motion to get a clean break. Leaving short bits on the plant can cause decay on the root. Remember that the leaves of a rhubarb plant are poisonous, so don’t eat the leaves and don’t put them in your compost.
Rhubarb is a perennial and will thrive for many years, even tolerating light shade. In Europe, there is a whole industry built on forcing it early with pots and pails turned upside down overtop the plants to ensure harvesting three to four weeks earlier. If you have an established plant, you might begin this technique now.
Rhubarb is such an easy plant to grow, and now is a perfect time to get them underway. Do give this tasty perennial a try.
Brian Minter is a master gardener who operates Minter Gardens in Chilliwack.