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By February 13, 2018 1 Comments Read More →

Growing Rhubarb

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Gaby Bartai provides growing and storage advice together with creative serving suggestions and recipes for your rhubarb crop

Rhubarb is something of a touchstone in the gardening year. After long weeks spent coaxing early spring crops into producing discernable growth, rhubarb bounces back into rampant production, the harvest is finally underway, and your faith in gardening is restored.

The season’s first fruit is, of course, not a fruit at all; it’s actually a herbaceous perennial vegetable, and the contradictions don’t end there. We think of rhubarb as a quintessentially British crop, but it’s a relatively recent arrival, and wasn’t even originally intended for eating. It was introduced to Europe from Asia as a medicinal plant, reputedly by Marco Polo in the 13th century. The first record of it being eaten in Britain is in the late 18th century, and it only really gained favour after the forcing process was accidentally discovered in the Chelsea Physic Garden in 1817.

The whole rhubarb plant contains high levels of oxalic acid, and while levels in the stems are low enough to make consumption safe, the leaves are poisonous. A little-known fact is that the unopened flower-heads (minus the flower stems and bracts) are also edible, albeit interestingly sour, and can be used as an exotic stir-fry ingredient.

A traditional (and expensive) forcer. But an upside down plant pot with the hole covered will do just as well.

Regular rhubarb is available a good six weeks ahead of any other fruit, and forced stems are achievable as early as March with nothing more high-tech than an inverted bucket. There are now also autumn and long-cropping varieties available for those who want to extend the season in the other direction, but that rather misses the point ‒ the real joy of rhubarb is that it has its own particular moment in the gardening year.

Tradition says to stop harvesting rhubarb when the first gooseberries are ready – and I’m with tradition on that one.

  • Rhubarb tolerates a wide range of soils, but it will be there for years, so pick the best possible spot. Choose an open, sunny site with fertile, free-draining soil ‒ rhubarb does not like to be waterlogged in winter.
  • Before planting, dig in plenty of manure or compost. Do not add lime as it prefers a slightly acidic soil.
  • Two or three healthy plants are enough to supply a family. If you want to stretch the season there’s a choice of early, late, autumn and long-cropping varieties.
  • Plants can last for over 20 years in good conditions, but older stock may be infected with virus disease, so if plants are underperforming it is time to invest in new stock.
  • Rhubarb is normally propagated from ‘sets’ – pieces of fleshy rootstock with a bud attached. Plant them in autumn or early spring. Either buy virus-free sets or separate sets from a dormant healthy plant at least three years old by slicing through the crown. Plant the sets 90cm apart with the buds just beneath the surface.
  • Rhubarb can be raised from seed, though with most varieties the results are variable. Sow in modules in early spring or in a seed-bed later in spring, and put the plants into their permanent positions in autumn.
  • Keep plants free of weeds and water well during dry spells.
  • Top-dress with compost or well-rotted manure after harvesting has finished, and again in early spring. Do not bury the crowns or they may rot.
  • Cut out flowering stalks before they blossom. Remove any yellowing leaves, and remove dead leaves in autumn.

Rhubarb blossom.

  • Rhubarb is generally trouble-free, though it is occasionally affected by crown rot. Avoid cutting the stalks as this can admit the disease. There is no cure; plant fresh stock on a new site.
  • Plants may also succumb to virus disease, or to honey fungus. Again, the only remedy is to plant new stock elsewhere.
  • Harvest rhubarb stalks by pulling, not cutting, and twist them outwards as you pull so that they detach cleanly. Remove the leaf immediately or the stem will wilt. Stalks stay in good condition on the plant for weeks, so harvest only as required.
  • Do not harvest plants in their first year, and only take a few stalks in the second. From the third year onwards, harvest up to half the stalks, leaving the rest to feed the plant. With all but autumn and long-cropping varieties, stop harvesting by the end of June.
  • To force earlier, sweeter stalks, cover a crown or two with an inverted bucket or blanching pot filled with straw, in February or March. The stems will be ready to harvest in about six weeks. After harvesting, mulch the crowns and leave them to recover for the rest of the season.
  • For the very earliest stalks – but at the cost of the plants – lift crowns over two years old in December and leave them exposed to the cold for a fortnight. In January, pack them closely in deep pots filled with soil. Put them in a shed, garage or greenhouse, covered with an upturned bucket to exclude light, and keep them moist. Once you have harvested the stems, discard those crowns.
  • If you want to preserve rhubarb for out-of-season use, it freezes well, either raw – chopped and blanched for two minutes – or cooked. It also makes a good jam.







Posted in: Growing Fruit

About the Author:

Ruth Tott is the publisher of Home Farmer Magazine, and together with her husband, Paul Melnyczuk, Editor,is founder of the company. But her background is far removed having specialised in Costume History with a Post-Grad diploma in Museum Studies to boot. A far cry from looking after chickens, growing veg and making bread!

1 Comment on "Growing Rhubarb"

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  1. Steve says:

    A quick tip for all you beekeepers out there. Rather than pouring neat oxalic acid on your beehive frames to get rid of varroa, put a rhubarb leaf on top of the frames instead. As the article says they contain oxalic acid. Your bees will chew up the leaf and remove it from the hive and in so doing spread oxalic acid throughout the hive.

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