Rhubarb is one of the kitchen garden
's early spring treats. Weeks before the first strawberry
ripens, you can enjoy the tart yet sweet flavor of rhubarb’s celerylike red or green leaf stalks in pies, jams, and jellies. ‘Victoria’, ‘Canada Red’, and ‘Valentine’ are three popular varieties that produce red stalks. Don’t eat the foliage, though: It’s poisonous.
Rhubarb needs at least two months of cold weather and does best in areas with 2- to 3-inch-deep ground-freezes and moist, cool springs.
Grow rhubarb from root divisions, called crowns, rather than from seed, which can produce plants that are not true to type. Three to six plants are plenty for most households.
Choose a sunny, well-drained, out-of-the-way spot for this long-lived perennial. Dig planting holes 3 feet wide and up to 3 feet deep to accommodate the mature roots. Mix the removed soil with generous amounts of aged manure and compost. Refill each hole to within 2 inches of the top, and set one crown in the center of each hole. Top off with the soil mix, tamp down well, and water thoroughly.
Once plants sprout, apply mulch to retain soil moisture and smother weeds. Renew mulch when the foliage dies down in fall to protect roots from extremely hard freezes. Provide enough water to keep roots from drying out, even when they’re dormant. Side dress with compost
in midsummer and again in fall. Remove flower stalks before they bloom to encourage leaf-stalk production. After several years, when plants become crowded and the leaf stalks are thin, dig up the roots in spring just as they sprout. Divide so that each crown has 1 to 3 eyes (buds); replant.
Rhubarb is usually pest free. Occasionally it’s attacked by European corn borers and cabbage worms. A more likely pest is rhubarb curculio, a ¾-inch-long, rust-colored beetle that you can easily control by hand picking. To destroy its eggs, remove and destroy any nearby wild dock in July.
are also rare, but rhubarb can succumb to Verticillium wilt, which yellows leaves early in the season and can wilt whole plants in late attacks. Crown rot occurs in shady, soggy soil. For either disease, remove and destroy infected plants; keep stalks thinned to promote good air circulation, and clean up thoroughly around crowns in fall. If stands become seriously diseased, destroy the entire stand. Replant disease-free stock in a new location. ‘MacDonald’ is a rot-resistant variety that grows well in heavy soils.
In spring when the leaves are fully developed, twist and pull stalks from the crowns. Don’t harvest any the first year, though, and take only those that are at least 1 inch thick the second year. By the third year, you can harvest for 1 to 2 months. After the third year, pick all you can eat.