How to Grow Rhubarb
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It's almost spring, and spring means rhubarb time! Learn how to grow rhubarb for your own supply of this much-anticipated treat.
If you only grow one vegetable this year, it should be rhubarb. Why? It’s so easy to learn how to grow rhubarb, because there’s so little you need to do! Once rhubarb is established in your garden or landscape, the plants come back for years. They need very little maintenance, and best of all? Every spring will begin with a fresh crop of rhubarb to use in dozens of sweet and savory rhubarb recipes.
Many folks think of rhubarb as a fruit (likely because it’s so often sweetened and paired with fruits.) It’s actually a perennial vegetable in growing zones 3-8. (Check this USDA map to see what growing zone you’re in.)
Where to Find Rhubarb Plants
They could be right next door! Neighbors or friends with large, established rhubarb patches will be happy to share some with you. Rhubarb plants are easy to dig up, divide and replant. Divide the crown of a plant using a sharp shovel, and take a portion with at least two stems.
No luck with your neighbors? Your local garden center will have young plants available in the spring as the gardening season kicks off. Sellers like Burpee are also a good bet. They will send bareroots (in other words, a root) that you can plant in the spring.
Where to Plant Rhubarb
Keep two things in mind when choosing the location for your rhubarb plant. First, because rhubarb is a perennial, it will grow back and grow larger in its location for years. Ideally, the spot you choose should be a permanent one. (Though you can always divide the plants if they get too big.) Second, rhubarb likes a lot of light, so look for a spot that gets full sun. Because rhubarb is a tall and attractive plant, you can also incorporate it into your landscape to have more location options.
The plants will spread between three to four feet wide, so space them apart accordingly. Dig a deep hole for rhubarb, and plant it with soil amended with compost. Be sure the soil around the rhubarb gets consistent moisture, but no standing water that could cause root rot.
Here are dozens of Grandma-approved rhubarb recipes.
How to Care for Rhubarb
One of the great things about rhubarb is that it’s low-maintenance plant, and will return every spring without any help at all. Give your new or divided rhubarb plants a year to get established. Be sure the soil around the plants stays moist, but not soggy. After the first year, your rhubarb will be strong enough that you can harvest the stems.
Mature rhubarb plants will send up towering flower stalks in early summer, with tight clusters of buds that open to pink flowers. You can let it flower if you wish, but if your goal is a large rhubarb harvest then you should cut the stalk away. Doing this lets the plant put its growing energy into the stems.
Some growers opt for forcing rhubarb. Learn how you can, too.
Tips for Growing and Harvesting Rhubarb
The rhubarb stalks are ready to harvest when they’re seven to 15 inches long. The color isn’t an indicator of ripeness, so don’t worry whether they’re red enough or not. (Here is our guide to picking rhubarb the right way.) You can harvest rhubarb beginning in spring and through mid summer. It’s then best stop harvesting, and to let the plant recuperate. It will store up energy to survive the winter.
Remember that only the stalks of rhubarb are edible. The leaves should be discarded, as they contain oxalic acid, which can be poisonous.
How to Use Rhubarb
Rhubarb stems are edible the moment you pick them. Feel free to snack on a raw stalk—though you will find it has a mouth-puckering sourness! That’s why rhubarb is so often used in baked goods and desserts where that sour tang can be tempered with sugar. Wash and dry rhubarb stems, then slice or dice them to use in dishes like Rhubarb Coffee Cake or a classic Strawberry Rhubarb Pie. Rhubarb is also delicious in many savory recipes, like barbecue sauces and salsas.
To store rhubarb, place the stalks in a plastic bag with a damp paper towel, and keep them in the fridge for up to two weeks. To freeze rhubarb, cut the stems into small pieces, and freeze them in a single layer in a sealed freezer bag. Rhubarb will keep in the freezer for up to one year.