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Learning to Grow: Rhubarb, a seasonal favorite

Published: Friday, June 14, 2013 5:48 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, June 14, 2013 5:50 p.m. CDT
(Provided photo)
It is best to plant or divide rhubarb in the early spring while the plants are still dormant.

One of the many reasons that I love the change of seasons is the food each season brings.

With spring and early summer comes fresh spinach, lettuce, strawberries, and one my childhood favorites, rhubarb. I know many of you are making a sour face right now, but I LOVE the tartness. 

My mother and I recently went to a nearby farm and picked fresh rhubarb. She made a delicious rhubarb pie and rhubarb sauce which was great with vanilla ice cream. 

If you are interested in adding rhubarb to your garden, here are a few tips.

Some of the recommended varieties for our area are Canada Red, Crimson Red, Valentine or Victoria. I am not sure the variety we picked, but I am guessing since this patch is many years old, that it might be Victoria since it has green petioles (leafstalks). A half-dozen plants will provide enough rhubarb for a family of four.

It is best to plant or divide rhubarb in the early spring while the plants are still dormant. Plant them in full sun in fertile soil that is high in organic matter and has been worked 12 to 15 inches deep. Plant the roots with the crown bud 2 inches below the surface of the soil.

Spacing is approximately 36 to 48 inches. You can also transplant established plants in the fall if you mulch with straw or other coarse material. Rhubarb requires annual fertilization in early spring before the growth starts. Transplants should not be harvested for two years.

Rhubarb can be harvested after two years. Only the stalks are harvested as the leaf blade contains high amounts of oxalic acid and should not be eaten.

During the third season, you may harvest for a four-week period.

In subsequent years, harvest will be eight to 10 weeks ending midsummer. During harvest, remove only 1/3 of the plant stalks at any one time.

Deeply water established rhubarb during dry weather (which certainly isn’t a problem right now). Healthy plants are able to store large amounts of food in their roots for an improved harvest the following year. 

Rhubarb plants will occasionally produce flower-like stalks that should be removed as soon as they appear because flower and seed formation reduces plant vigor. 

I was lucky enough to be able to bring home a bunch of rhubarb as well. It will store nicely in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks; however, I know mine won’t last that long.  I am already searching around for new recipes to try with this seasonal favorite of mine. 

If you would like additional information on growing rhubarb, visit urbanext.illinois.edu.

• Vicki Hagstotz is a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener for Kane County. Call the extension office at 630-584-6166 for more information.

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