Rhubarb is a fantastic low maintenance perennial garden vegetable that comes back every year stronger and more productive than the last. Grown for its tart petioles (leafstalks), rhubarb is most commonly considered a fruit in the United States and is typically used in baking. Use it to stretch strawberry preserves, add a little zing to savory dishes as a sauce, make a satisfying cocktail, or just wash it off with the hose and eat it straight out of the garden. As kids my sister and I would routinely sneak stalks from our aunt Brenda’s rhubarb plant. We’d sprinkle them with salt, plop down on her back steps and munch. It wasn’t until recently that I had ever eaten cooked rhubarb in any form, I’d turn my nose up thinking it was something to be crunched raw. But I’ve fallen in love with the unique flavor it brings to almost everything, especially pies.
To give your plants a great start select a well drained location that is seldom disturbed in the garden for your rhubarb to live– the plants will be productive for 5 years or many more. Mounds or raised beds amended with compost make the ideal home for rhubarb. Plant crowns two inches below the soil, at least 3 feet apart, and mulch them with straw to keep the weeds down. Ample space is needed as the plants will get quite large when mature. The first year after planting you wont want to harvest any stalks, as tempting as it can be. You want the plant to focus on growing a strong root system, not growing stalks. In the second year harvest for only 1-2 weeks, when the plant is in its third year you can harvest for 8-10 weeks and this is considered a full harvest. Only harvest 1/3rd of the plant at a time, taking too much can cause the plant stress and it wont be as productive. By August you should be leaving the plant alone so it can send enough nutrients to the crown to prepare for the impending winter months. When harvesting pull stalks from the crown – don’t cut them off. This action helps to keep the plant productive and healthy. Remember to remove the leaves before consuming as they contain high levels of oxalic acid which is toxic to humans. After 5 years of full harvest you can dig up the crown and divide it into 4-6 pieces, so long as each piece has a strong bud. replant the cuttings to revive your patch or give them to friends to spread the rhubarb love. Rhubarb is a hardy perennial, and doesn’t require mulching or any other sort of babying to make it through our tough Michigan winters, which is great because we all have enough to deal with as it is.
Sometimes you may notice in the spring that your rhubarb is trying to flower, as soon as you see flower heads, cut them back to the crown. Again, you want the plant to focus on being vegetative and making leafstalks for you to eat, not reproducing. I highly suggest spending a little more money for a propagated variety (Canada Red for example), these plants are started from splitting a crown, rather than a cheaper plant that was started by seed. Rhubarb started by seed is prone to bolting, (or wanting to go to seed) as soon as conditions are right you will see them forcing up flower heads and you will have to continually battle for petiole production. Stress can also cause your rhubarb to flower. Planting crowns too close together so the plants have to compete for space can cause even a nice variety to want to go to seed. Weeds should be kept down around the plants with the use of straw or grass clipping mulch. Also all patches of wild curly dock need to be removed from the area, since they are in the rhubarb family and carry many of the same diseases that plague rhubarb.
Preserving the harvest:
Preparing your rhubarb harvest for for preservation is crazy easy, and it’s probably one of my favorite things about it, simply…
- Pull Stalks
- Rinse and chop into 1” pieces
- Arrange in a single layer on a cookie sheet
- Freeze 4 hours or overnight
- Remove from cookie sheet and dump into freezer safe container of your choice
To use after freezing:
Always measure for your recipe while the food is still frozen, then allow it to thaw to room temperature . Drain excess water then use in your recipe as directed. This little tip makes all the difference when cooking with frozen produce.