SEATTLE, WASH. - Gardening guru Ciscoe Morris explains what you need to know about growing rhubarb at home.
Rhubarb crowns are for sale right now at your local nursery. Despite its tart fruit-like flavor, rhubarb is actually a vegetable related to sorrel. There are lots of great varieties, but my favorite is Crimson Cherry. It is the reddest of all varieties and holds it's color well all season. Plant the crown in a sunny location in well-drained soil amended with plenty of organic compost. 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. Plant the crown so the buds are 1 inch deep in the soil.
During the first year, you need to resist the temptation to harvest the stems, in order to allow Rhubarb plants to become properly established. But from the second year, stems can be harvested from April to June, when the leaves have fully unfurled and the stems are 12" long.
Pull each rhubarb stalk from the base of the stem and twist them away from the crown. It’s important to only harvest a few stems at a time, as over-cropping will reduce the plants vigor. Never take more than half of the stems at a time.
Make sure that you have finished harvesting by the end of July in order to give the plant sufficient time to build up energy reserves for next year’s crop. Don’t worry if you find that you have more rhubarb than you can use. Rhubarb freezes particularly well so you can save some to enjoy later on in the year.
A word of warning: Only the stems of rhubarb are edible. The leaves contain oxalic acid which is toxic if eaten. Simply trim the leaves from the stems and add them to your compost heap.
If you see a strange looking growth appear on your rhubarb plant, cut it off. It's a flower stalk and will weaken the plant if you allow it to remain and go to seed. That's because it will expend more energy producing offspring than thick, juicy stalks. There are a number of reasons why rhubarb tends to flower heavily. Some of the older varieties are highly prone to flowering. Too little or the wrong fertilizer can also promote flowering. To discourage flowering and enhance stalk growth, apply organic lawn food in spring, or if you If you have access to bunny manure, stick a chunk of the pellets into the ground about every 4 inches around the drip line and watch it take off. Don't forget to ask the bunny owner for permission to take some pellets. I know from experience that it's embarrassing if your neighbor catches you pilfering bunny guappa at midnight.
Finally, if your rhubarb plant ever begins flowering heavily and you haven't divided it in the last 8 to 10 years, it's telling you its roots are overcrowded. Wait to divide the rootmass until it goes dormant next winter, then cut out and toss away the middle section, and replant the ends. Work in plenty of compost before replanting and make sure the growing points are located right at the soil surface. Then make friends with a generous person with a big rhubarb patch. You can't harvest any stalks the first season after you divide it, and you don't want to suffer a whole year without rhubarb pie à la mode!
Don't forget to pile plenty of ice cream on your rhubarb pie to ensure that you eat from all levels of the food pyramid!
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