We all eagerly look forward to the first tastes of spring from our gardens, keeping our eye on the asparagus patch, the chives and that clump of winter onions. Another plant that we watch carefully for is rhubarb. There’s nothing more tantalizing than that first bowl of stewed rhubarb — unless it is a delicious rhubarb crisp!
Rhubarb has been grown in Prairie gardens for years, and was once a mainstay of the winter diet. Canned rhubarb was a staple dessert in my home when I was a child and rhubarb conserve, a jam-like product, was also plentiful. It was also canned without syrup to be used in pies and puddings. Now, rhubarb is simply frozen to be used for this purpose.
Rhubarb is a tough plant that is easy to grow. Its basic needs are: moisture, good drainage, fertile soil, and sunshine. Although it will be more productive if it is watered during dry spells, it is quite tolerant of drought and established plants rarely need to be watered as rainfall usually supplies enough moisture. It does demand good drainage and a rhubarb plant will not flourish — and may even be killed — if its roots are repeatedly subjected to sodden soil.
The plants can be left in place for years; in fact, rhubarb objects to being disturbed and a new plant typically takes a year or two to get established. Only divide your clump if the stalks become noticeably small and crowded. When first planted, a large hole should be dug and lots of compost or well-rotted manure should be added as rhubarb likes a rich soil containing lots of organic matter. Even when grown in rich soil, it doesn’t hurt to fertilize in the spring, particularly in a small urban garden where tree roots might be depleting the soil of nutrients around the plant.
Rhubarb likes lots of sun. A clump will tolerate a partly shaded location, but it will not be as productive or as robust as it would be in full sun. Because it is usually grown in a sunny spot, it puts forth new growth quite early in the spring. Although you might be anxious to have the first taste of rhubarb, wait until the new stalks are at least 30 cm high. Whether they are red or not depends on the variety, not on the level of ripeness. Don’t think that you have to wait for the new stalks to ripen up by turning red as they will not do so unless the variety is a red one.
Rhubarb is a hardy perennial that needs no winter protection. When heavy fall frost turns the leaves limp, the old stalks should be removed; do not harvest these stalks as the frost will have forced some of the oxalic acid in the leaves to migrate into them. Light fall frost — or early spring ones — will not have caused this to happen if the leaves and stalks do not appear damaged. At least two-thirds of the stalks should be left on in the late summer/early fall to ensure the plant builds up its nutrient supplies to enable it to endure the winter. In the spring and summer, two-thirds of the stalks can be harvested without damaging the plant.
Harvest stalks by grabbing them near their base and pulling. Start with the most mature stalks near the outside of the clump and work in, leaving the smaller ones at the centre. Use lots of rhubarb early in the season as it is a cool-weather crop and suffers a decline during the heat of midsummer. It will rebound somewhat when cooler autumn temperatures arrive. Give it a rest starting in early July and perhaps top dress the soil around the clump with some compost and give it some water if the weather has been dry.
If you have rhubarb in your garden, enjoy! If you don’t, add a clump of this wonderful plant to your landscape — its large crinkly leaves and red stalks are quite attractive so it need not be hidden in a back corner. If you plant rhubarb this spring, you too will be eagerly awaiting those first tender stalks to emerge in future springs.