Cooked like fruit and eaten in desserts, rhubarb is technically a vegetable because, like celery, it is the leaf stems that are eaten. It is very easy to grow, and mature plants crop from spring to summer.
How to Grow
Rhubarb is best planted in a sunny spot, although it does tolerate some
shade with well-drained, moisture-retentive soil that has been enriched
with well-rotted organic matter. Plant bare root plants while dormant,
late fall to early spring; container-grown plants can be planted any
time if well watered. When planting container-grown plants, make sure
the bud is at the same depth in the soil as it was in the pot, and
position plants 3 feet apart. Water plants well during dry spells in
the first year, and mulch with well-rotted organic matter in the
spring, avoiding the crown itself. Cut the flowering stems that appear
in the summer, remove dead leaves in the fall and mulch. Rhubarb leaves are toxic — remove them from the stems before cooking. They are safe to add to the compost heap.
Stems are tender and ready to harvest when reddish and just before the
leaves unfurl, unless they are forced. Pick as needed until early
summer, then let the plant recover. Twist the stems so they come away
cleanly, rather than cutting them. Do not harvest any stems from new
plants in their first year, then harvest only lightly in their second
Varieties to Try
Rhubarb can be raised from seed, but it is most commonly bought as young plants, either bare root or container-grown. Consider these types of rhubarb for your garden: ‘Fulton’s Strawberry Surprise’, ‘Hawke’s Champagne’, ‘Pink Champagne’, ‘Reed’s Early Superb’, ‘Stockbridge Arrow’, ‘Timperley Early’ and ‘Victoria’.
Forcing Early Stems
Hurry along the process of stem production with this two-step process:
- For early, tender stems, cover the plant before it emerges with a large container to block out the light, such as a forcer or a bucket weighed down with bricks. Check for slugs and snails first.
- Remove the long stems as needed until mid-spring, then uncover the plant, and allow it to grow naturally. To let the plant recover, do not force it the following year. For best results, apply this technique to early or forcing varieties.
Avoid Pests and Diseases
It is not uncommon for slugs and snails to attack young or forced rhubarb stems, eating or damaging growth. Thwart the problem by applying pellets, using beer traps or spreading gritty barriers. Crown rot is another common problem to rhubarb that can cause the center of the plant to decay, especially where the leaves join. It is caused by various diseases, most often in wet weather. There are no chemical controls, but the infection can be cut out before it spreads.