Rhubarb is an easy-to-grow perennial vegetable that produces large, tart, reddish stalks resembling rosy celery. It’s best-known for making sweet jams and baked goods like pies or tarts. In this article, learn all the essentials about how to grow rhubarb and keep it thriving for years.
This perennial plant prefers cool climates with winters that are cold enough to allow a dormancy period. Find a spot in your garden for planting rhubarb where it can grow undisturbed year after year.
The leaf stalks are the only edible part of rhubarb plants and almost always get cooked. Rhubarb leaves contain oxalic acid, which is highly toxic to humans and animals. Ensure that pets and livestock can’t access your rhubarb plants.
- What to Know about Growing Rhubarb
What to Know about Growing Rhubarb
Rhubarb, or Rheum rhabarbarum by its botanical name, is native to China. The plant was first introduced to Europe and North America in the 1600s. It’s a member of the Polygonaceae or buckwheat family and is cultivated for its edible petioles or leaf stalks. Although mainly used as a fruit, rhubarb is technically a vegetable.
Before sugar became widely available and inexpensive in the 18th century, rhubarb was primarily medicinal. It’s an excellent source of antioxidants, fiber, calcium, potassium, vitamin C, and vitamin K.
The many health benefits of eating rhubarb include lowering cholesterol, regulating blood pressure, supporting eye health, and reducing the risk of chronic diseases.
Although strawberry rhubarb pie might be the first thing that comes to mind, there are a wide variety of culinary uses for rhubarb stalks. Try making savory rhubarb recipes like rhubarb chutney or a chicken marinade for something different.
As long as you provide them with the proper growing conditions, you’ll enjoy a bountiful harvest of tasty rhubarb stalks year after year. Read on to discover the best tips and tricks for growing rhubarb at home.
Planting Rhubarb Crowns
Like planting Swiss chard from seed, most gardeners opt for planting one-year-old rhubarb crowns since planting rhubarb seeds takes much longer and is more labor-intensive. Always purchase rhubarb crowns from a certified disease-free source. They’re available in early spring at your local garden center or from online retailers.
The best time for planting rhubarb is in early spring or late fall, while the root system is dormant. The optimal soil temperature is 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Rhubarb plants reach up to four or five feet wide at maturity, so be sure to provide them with plenty of space to spread.
For the best results, loosen the soil around your planting hole for at least 12 inches in all directions. Plant the crowns about four inches deep and loosely cover them with a mixture of organic compost and garden soil.
Water the newly planted rhubarb thoroughly and keep the soil consistently moist throughout the growing season. Apply a deep layer of mulch to protect the soil surface, retain moisture, and suppress weed growth.
One of the best parts of home gardening is trying unique veggie varieties that aren’t usually available at grocery stores and farmer’s markets. Here are a few of the best rhubarb varieties to grow in your garden at home. Try one or more of these common types of rhubarb for a tasty harvest.
How Long does Rhubarb Take to Grow?
Have you ever asked, “How long does rhubarb take to grow?” Similar to other perennial vegetables like asparagus and artichokes, growing rhubarb takes a little patience.
Rhubarb plants don’t reach full maturity until their third year. Resist harvesting any rhubarb stalks the first year after planting, and harvest sparingly the second year.
If you start rhubarb from seed, you probably won’t be able to harvest until the second year. Depending on the weather, most growers start seeds indoors in late winter for transplanting in early to late spring.
Ideal Growing Conditions for Rhubarb Plants
Rhubarb plants grow best in slightly acidic soil rich in organic matter, with a pH level between 6.0 and 6.8. Although they grow fastest in full sun, the plants benefit from a bit of afternoon shade in warmer climates. Ensure they receive at least four or five hours of direct sunlight throughout the day.
Despite their exceptional cold hardiness, most rhubarb varieties don’t tolerate heat very well. Rhubarb makes an excellent winter vegetable in southern regions but may not come back the following year.
In hot weather above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the plants may bolt and prematurely produce flower stalks. Trim off any emerging flower stalks as soon as you notice them to encourage the plant to focus its energy on making large, juicy leaf stalks.
If you have heavy clay soil, it might be best to grow rhubarb in a raised bed to ensure that they have nutrient-rich and well-draining soil so the deep root system can thrive. Avoid overcrowding the plants, as poor air circulation leads to stunted growth and problems with fungal disease and root rot.
Spacing between plants should be around four or five feet. Once they reach full maturity, dig up and divide your rhubarb plants every three or four years in late fall or early spring when they’re dormant to keep them producing healthy new growth.
Each crown division must have at least one or two large buds. Replant the divisions in another area of your garden or give them away to your green-thumbed friends.
Choosing the Best Rhubarb Fertilizer
In addition to nutrient-rich soil, it’s essential to fertilize your rhubarb plants regularly throughout the growing season. They’re heavy feeders, and some gardeners plant them near their compost pile, so the plants have a continuous supply of nutrients.
In most cases, feeding the plants three times per year is sufficient. Apply an organic, all-purpose fertilizer around the base of your rhubarb plants in early spring, mid-summer, and late fall.
It’s also beneficial to mulch around the plants with coffee grounds and eggshells. They add supplemental micronutrients to the soil and deter pests like slugs and rodents.
Organic plant fertilizer is often expensive. Also, some growers enjoy the peace of mind that comes with knowing exactly what ingredients are in the fertilizer used on their food plants. Use this simple DIY recipe to make your own rhubarb fertilizer.
Mix the ingredients in a large, watertight container with a lid using a trowel or garden fork. Allow it to cure with the cover for at least two or three weeks. Apply one cup of fertilizer per plant and gently work it into the top few inches of the soil surface. Store your homemade fertilizer in a cool, dry place.
How to Grow Rhubarb in Containers
Don’t worry if you don’t have a garden plot or raised beds at home. It’s also possible to grow-rhubarb in a large container on your porch or patio.
Choose a pot that’s at least two feet deep and wide. Make sure it has several good drainage holes at the bottom so water doesn’t pool up and cause root rot. Fill the container with rich, well-draining potting soil up to an inch or two below the rim and plant the rhubarb crowns according to the instructions described above.
Container-grown plants use up water and fertilizer more quickly than in-ground plantings. When growing rhubarb in containers, be sure to check the pot’s moisture level frequently and water whenever the top several inches of soil are completely dry. Since nutrients leach out of the soil as water drains from the pot, increase your fertilizing schedule to every six to eight weeks.
To overwinter your rhubarb pot, prune the stalks to an inch or two above the soil level after they completely die back. Cover the soil surface with a thick layer of mulch and wrap the pot in bubble wrap, cardboard, or old blankets. Move your rhubarb container close to the wall of your house so it benefits from a bit of radiant heat.
Harvesting and Storing Homegrown Rhubarb
Begin to harvest rhubarb the second or third year after planting. Gather sparingly your first harvest season to allow the plant to become properly established. After that, the rhubarb harvest season lasts for eight to ten weeks, from late spring to mid-summer.
Cut the stalks when they reach 12-18 inches long and are at least three-quarters of an inch thick. If your plant only produces thin stalks, that means it’s running low on nutrients, and you shouldn’t harvest that year. Amend the soil with organic compost and keep up with regular fertilizing.
Grasp the leaf stalks by their base and detach them from the main stem with a gentle twist. If you encounter any resistance, use a sterile, sharp knife or pair of pruning shears instead. To ensure that the plant keeps growing, be sure to leave at least two large leaves when harvesting.
Rhubarb stalks usually turn somewhat bitter and stringy when hot summer weather arrives. After mid-summer, let the plant keep growing and storing energy for the following year.
Cut your rhubarb plants back to a few inches above the soil level in late fall once the foliage dries out. Cover them with mulch to protect their root systems.
Solutions for Common Pest and Disease Problems
Although rhubarb plants are usually low-maintenance, they sometimes suffer from a handful of pest and disease issues. Healthy plants are significantly more resistant to attacks from pests and pathogens. Providing your plants with sufficient amounts of light, nutrients, and water is their best line of defense.
Rhubarb plants occasionally suffer from root diseases like crown rot, caused by soil-borne fungi that infect buds near the soil level. If left untreated, it gradually spreads to the plant’s entire crown, which turns black and mushy. Eventually, the centers of the primary roots become hollow and rotted.
If you notice symptoms early enough, it’s possible to treat the affected plant with an organic copper or sulfur fungicide. Otherwise, remove the entire plant. The fungus stays in the soil for many years, so it’s best to replant your rhubarb elsewhere and avoid growing susceptible crops in that area.
The most prevalent rhubarb pests are snails, slugs, and the rhubarb curculio beetle. Also called a rhubarb weevil, curculio beetles are dark-colored with a yellow-ish dusting on their backs and a long snout. They damage rhubarb stalks by boring holes to lay eggs.
The larvae burrow into the plant tissue to feed, causing the stem to wilt and die. The only direct control is to hand-pick the insects off of your plant, as they’re resistant to most insecticides. Remove their wild host plants from your property, including dock, sunflower, and thistle.
Mulching with eggshells and coffee grounds deters snails and slugs since they don’t like to crawl over the rough texture. If the problem is severe, try making beer traps to catch them.
Bury several small waxed paper cups in the soil around your rhubarb plants so that the cup’s rim is level with the soil surface. Fill the cups three-quarters full with beer. The yeasty aroma of the beer attracts the slugs and snails, and they crawl in and drown. Replace the traps every day or two, depending on the level of activity.
Rhubarb Companion Plants
Companion planting is a time-honored garden design strategy that takes advantage of the naturally beneficial interactions between certain plants. Some attract beneficial insects like pollinators and predators, while others repel garden pests.
In addition, specific plant pairings reportedly improve their neighbors’ flavor and overall vigor when cultivated nearby. However, not all plants make good neighbors, and some must be planted separately.
Thanks to their pungent odor, plants in the Allium family, like chives, garlic, and onions, have exceptional pest-repellent capabilities and are great for companion planting rhubarb. They deter aphids, cutworms, leaf beetles, slugs, spider mites, and weevils.
Brassicas like broccoli, cabbage, and kale also make good companions for rhubarb. They help repel whiteflies and have similar requirements for light, nutrients, temperature, and water.
Legumes like peas and beans have a unique relationship with soil bacteria that allows them to fix nitrogen in the surrounding soil.
They make outstanding companion plants for leafy vegetables like cabbage, lettuce, rhubarb, and spinach. However, they must grow away from Alliums, as these two plant groups may stunt one another’s growth.
Avoid planting rhubarb near cucumbers, melons, squash, and tomatoes. They’re all heavy feeders and compete with one another for nutrients.
Growing rhubarb in your home veggie garden is incredibly straightforward and satisfying. These low-maintenance perennial vegetables reward you with sweetly tangy rhubarb stalks year after year once they become established.
Many gardeners ask, “How long does rhubarb take to grow?” It takes at least two growing seasons before you can harvest rhubarb.
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