Growing Rhubarb

This morning, I woke up, and trying to beat the forecasted rain, walked out immediately into the garden to harvest some rhubarb.  I've been growing three rhubarb plants for about three years now, and finally am getting a good crop. The perennial rhubarb plant has long, red, celery-like stalks with expansive, wavy, bright-green leaves.  It reminds me of the South American Gunnera plant, often called giant rhubarb, with leaves big enough to be used as umbrellas, though the two are not botanically related.

Rhubarb, for the most part, is easy to grow, not much bothered by pests and doesn't require much upkeep on the part of the gardener.  Just a few things though to keep in mind to get the most out of your rhubarb.
  1. Rhubarb needs cold winters, not necessarily freezing, but at least average winter temps below 40°F. Here in Northern California, even though we have warm summers, the winters are cold enough to grow rhubarb.
  2. When planting, dig a big hole and mix in a lot of compost, rotted manure or other organic sources of food. Rhubarb is a heavy feeder.
  3. Plant in full-sun for best results.  I have to admit, mine are growing in half-shade and I go back and forth between moving them to a sunnier patch or leaving them where they are.  Mostly because I'm lazy, they're still in half-shade. But, that also means I don't have to water as much : )
  4. Don't harvest any stalks the first year; the plant needs to build up its root system.  And in subsequent years, always leave a few stalks on the plant so it can continue to make food and stay strong for next year's growth.
  5. When harvesting stalks, grab them at their base and pull down and twist, so that you get a clean break.  Avoid cutting the stalks off as that leaves an open "wound" for disease and rot to enter.
  6. If you find a big stalk growing straight up out of your rhubarb, it's bolting, or going to seed.  Cut off the flowering stalk so the plant can continue to direct its energies towards making more stalks and leaves instead of seeds.
Rhubarb plant with flowering stalk
Finally, do not eat the leaves which are high in oxalic acid.  Eaten in large quantities, they have been known to cause death, so eat only the stalk.

And what can you do with rhubarb?  Even though it's a vegetable, it's most commonly used in desserts - pies, crumbles, crisps.  A favorite partner is strawberry, whose sweetness balances its sourness.  Here's what I did with my rhubarb.... Old-fashioned Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie!

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