How To Grow The Most Pie-Worthy Rhubarb Ever

Enjoy ripe rhubarb every year before all your other summer crops are ready.

March 30, 2017
how to grow rhubarb
cjp/Getty

You'll be happy to discover rhubarb is a hardy and problem-free perennial. You plant a few roots (or crowns) and then every spring thereafter you can treat your family to one of spring's most refreshing tastes. 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.

(On just a quarter-acre of land, you can produce fresh, organic food for a family of four—year-round. Rodale's The Backyard Homestead shows you how; get your copy today.)

planting rhubarb
RawFile/getty
Planting Rhubarb

Rhubarb thrives in cool locations and full sun. In warmer climates, plants benefit from light shade but form longer, thinner stems.

Grow rhubarb from root divisions, called crowns, rather than from seed, which can produce plants that are not true to type. Choose a sunny, well-drained, out-of-the-way spot for this long-lived perennial. 

Before planting, prepare a hole at least 1.5 feet deep and 3 feet wide. Loosen the soil and enrich it with a 6-inch layer of compost. Add a handful of bonemeal if your soil is low in phosphorus. Set the crowns of rhubarb divisions 1 to 2 inches below the soil surface.

Set container-grown plants level with the soil surface or slightly lower if the surrounding soil is likely to settle. 

(Sign up for our FREE newsletter to get clever kitchen tricks, gardening secrets, and more delivered straight to your inbox!)

growing rhubarb
jlmcloughlin/getty
Rhubarb Growing Guidelines

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. 

Related: 5 Vegetables That Grow Back Year After Year

Advertisement
Advertisement
 
growing rhubarb
Juliette Wade/getty
Problems With Rhubarb

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. 

Diseases 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. 

rhubarb
Anna Shepulova/shutterstock
Harvesting Rhubarb

You can harvest 2-6 pounds of rhubarb each season from a full-size plant. Cool, moist weather tends to increase productivity, while warm, dry conditions may reduce your harvest.

In spring when the leaves are fully developed, snap off rhubarb stalks by twisting them sharply at the base. Or cut them off with a sharp knife, using care to avoid injuring underground buds. Cut off and compost the leaves as you harvest.

You may lightly harvest rhubarb one year after planting small divisions or nursery plants. Gradually increase the number of stalks and the length of time you pick in the second and third years of growth.  Expect healthy plants to produce fully in the fourth year.

growing rhubarb in pots
AndreaAstes/Getty
Extending The Season

If you have extra rhubarb plants, try forcing one in the winter. In fall, transplant the extra into a tub of moist planting mix or sand. Leave the tub outdoors in 28-50 degree temperatures for 7 to 9 weeks, then move it into cool (55-60 degrees), bright indoor conditions. Keep the soil moist; stalks will appear in about a month. Harvest when they reach 1 to 1.5 feet long.

Related: 10 Fruits And Vegetables You Can Grow In A Tiny Apartment

 
 
rhubarb muffins
jarafoti/getty
Eating Your Rhubarb

In the kitchen, you'll like rhubarb's tangy taste and versatility—it plays nicely with other flavors in stuffing, sauces for meat and fish, tarts, crisps, pies, preserves, and even ice cream sandwiches. Try pickling the stalks for a delicious summer treat.

Related: Strawberry-Rhubarb Galette

Freezing for later use

1. Select firm but tender stalks with few fibers. Wash, trim and cut into 1- or 2-inch pieces.
2. Put rhubarb pieces in boiling water for 1 minute to blanch them.
3. Move the blanched rhubarb from the boiling water to cold water. Drain well.
4a.Unsweetened: Pack blanched rhubarb tightly into containers, leaving half-inch headspace. Seal, label and freeze.
4b. Sweetened: Pack blanched rhubarb lightly into containers. Pour cold syrup (1 cup sugar dissolved in 1 cup water) over the rhubarb, leaving a half-inch of headspace. Seal, label and freeze.