Rhubarb is a perennial that produces large amounts of tart, edible stalks and is a garden standby, with its large leaves and sculptural stems. While the leaves may add beauty to your garden, they're not part of the harvest package. Rhubarb leaves contain high concentrations of oxalic acid and shouldn't be eaten. The edible part of this perennial plant is the vibrant pink stalk, which is almost always cooked with lots of sugar because it is very sour.
Choosing the Right Location to Plant Rhubarb
The best place to plant rhubarb is in an area that gets full sun exposure and has well-drained soil. Make sure to avoid planting it next to trees or other large plants, as they will compete for water and nutrients. When planting rhubarb, it's important to remember that it will take some time for it to become established. For the first year or two, be prepared to water it regularly and fertilize it twice a year.
Since rhubarb is a true perennial expect it to provide you with fresh stalks for harvesting for 5 to 8 years or even longer. Once your plants are established, they will be difficult to transplant, so choose your planting site carefully. You can plant your rhubarb crowns in the spring as soon as the soil is workable. Tuck them into slightly acidic soil that is rich in organic matter; blend in plenty of well-rotted manure or compost.
Select a location that gives the plants plenty of room, individual rhubarb plants can measure up to four feet wide and tall. Rhubarb crowns require shallow planting (around 4 inches deep), but because plants are such heavy feeders, you should dig planting holes at least a foot deep.
Fun fact: the USDA classifies it as a fruit, but it’s really a vegetable.
Rhubarb is a vegetable often thought to be a fruit. There's actually a good reason for this confusion: in 1947 the USDA classified it as a fruit because the tariffs on bringing fruits into the country were lower on fruits than vegetables. In actuality though, rhubarb is a vegetable - a member of the buckwheat family.
Caring for Rhubarb Plants
After planting, water the rhubarb crowns well. Keep the soil moist throughout the growing season; most of the watering should be done in the spring and early summer. As the weather warms up in summer, mulch the plants with a 2-inch-thick layer of organic mulch to help keep the soil moist. Be sure to replenish the mulch as needed to maintain a 2-inch thickness.
As winter approaches, it's important to take the necessary steps to protect your rhubarb plants. Once the leaves have died back, you'll need to cut them off at the base and mulch the soil around the plants with a few inches of straw, leaves or bark. This will help protect them from frost and keep them healthy through the winter.
The best growth comes from feeding your plants a plant food that works in concert with your soil; this provides just the right nutrients for your rhubarb.
Harvesting rhubarb is easy. Simply cut the stalks from the plant, making sure to leave a bit of the stem attached. Early spring stems offer the most flavor and tenderness; they're ideal for pies. Stems harvested later in the season tend to be tougher, so reserve them for stewing, sauces, or jams.
The best time to harvest rhubarb is early in the morning, before the sun gets too high in the sky and the leaves start to wilt. To harvest, gently grasp the stalk near the base and twist it—don’t cut it!— until it snaps free from the root. If you have trouble getting the stalk to snap off, use a sharp knife to Cut the stalk slightly below soil level.
Using and Storing Rhubarb
You can store freshly harvested rhubarb in the fridge for a few days, but for best results use it right away. If you need to store it for a while, you can chop the stalks and freeze them in freezer bags for later use. Just be sure to thaw them before cooking them, as freezing will make them a little bit tough.
Now that you know how to plant and harvest rhubarb, you can enjoy this delicious perennial vegetable for years to come. Be sure to take proper care of your rhubarb plants so that they stay healthy and productive.
If you have any questions or need help troubleshooting a problem, don't hesitate to reach out to us. With a little care and some patience, you'll be able to harvest mouth-watering rhubarb pies, tarts, and more from your own backyard.