Easy-to-grow Perennial Rhubarb Should be a Staple in Every Garden
It seems that people have a love-hate relationship with rhubarb. I love it, my hubby loves it, my mom hates it. However, whether you love it or hate it, it’s a stupid simple plant to grow in your home garden, assuming you know someone who will eat it!
So, in answer to the question, is rhubarb a fruit or a vegetable?
Surprise! It’s a vegetable!
Most of us just treat it like a fruit, adding it to pies, cobblers, jams and other sweet dishes. Except for my husband ~ He picks it straight from the garden and eats it like a stalk of celery. *shudder*
So, how easy is it to grow? Let’s dive in and talk about that.
Where Rhubarb Grows Best
Rhubarb is a colder climate plant. It prefers areas where the winters get below 40F and where the soil actually freezes down a couple of inches.
If you’re one of my warmer weather friends, you can still try growing it, but in contrast to colder areas where full sun is necessary, you should plan to give your rhubarb generous afternoon shade.
AN INTRIGUING IDEA: I haven’t seen this mentioned anywhere and therefore have no idea if it would work or if it’s just a weird idea from my even weirder brain buuuuuut….I wonder if my warmer weather friends could try growing rhubarb in pots during the summer, then placing the plants in a refrigerator for several months in the winter to replicate colder winters? We do this all the time with seeds that require winter cold to sprout. I know you’d need a pretty big fridge or maybe even an extra one just for plants, but it might work. Hmmm….anyone up for trying this and letting me know how it goes?
Seeds versus Plants
You can grow rhubarb from either seeds or crowns (similar to asparagus). It’s up to you what you would like, keeping in mind that you’ll get a quicker harvest if you plant crowns.
If you choose to plant seeds, do so indoors 4 to 8 weeks before your last frost, or directly in the garden 2 to 3 weeks before last frost.
If you choose to buy crowns (which is what I did), be sure to purchase certified disease-free plants from a reputable retailer like Stark Bros.
Before planting, you’ll want to prepare your garden soil much like you would with other vegetables. Give it a good dose of compost or leaf mold as rhubarb likes nice rich soil.
NOTE: I haven’t found anything in my garden that actually eats rhubarb. Although we have deer, groundhogs, rabbits, squirrels, voles, chipmunks, you name it, nothing has touched my rhubarb, even though it was outside my garden fence. It’s inside the fence now because we expanded the garden, not because I felt the need to fence it in. I’m guessing that because the leaves are poisonous (yes, even to us!), the critters don’t bother with it.
Be sure to dig a nice, large hole if you’re planting crowns, so you can spread the roots out. Adding some compost right in the planting hole won’t hurt anything either.
Again, in the north, full sun is best, while my southern friends are going to want a site with generous afternoon shade.
Don’t put the plants out until all danger of frost is past as the young plants are frost-sensitive.
Garden Care of your Rhubarb
Rhubarb is so easy to care for! Be sure to mulch it when you first plant it and give it ample water.
If you’re wondering how to keep track of when you water your crops, or even need a simple system to help you with that, please check out my newest resource here. It will help!
You can also side dress with compost in mid-summer and then again in fall. Other that that, you’re pretty much good to go.
Unless you’re saving seed from your rhubarb, the only other thing you should do is remove the flowers in the spring so your plants can put their energy into their root systems.
Dividing your Rhubarb Plants
Before we get to the good stuff (you know, how to harvest and cook with your rhubarb), I just want to mention that every few years, you’ll notice your plants getting spindly and crowded. At that point, dig them up in early spring when they just start to sprout and separate them.
Any crowns with at least 1 bud (but preferably 2 or 3) can be replanted. You can either just spread your crowns out a bit more in the same location or replant somewhere else. I’m sure your friends or neighbors would appreciate some plants too!
I’m on year three with mine and they’re still going strong, so I won’t be separating them until at least the spring after next. I’ll see how they look when they come up next year and make my decision then.
Harvesting your Rhubarb
Finally, what you’ve been waiting for!
Harvesting rhubarb is very easy, although you need to keep in mind you shouldn’t harvest in years one and two, much like you would do with asparagus.
In year three, feel free to harvest repeatedly until the stalks coming up start to look spindly, then leave them for the plant to replenish itself.
My own personal opinion is that it’s best to leave part of the leaves and stalks at any given time so you don’t weaken the plant too much. This might not be necessary, but I’m uncomfortable harvesting everything, so I always leave some.
I have two rhubarb plants right now. One has always been weaker than the other, I have absolutely no idea why. They were bought at the same time from the same place and placed in the same soil at the same time. BUT, it wilts first in hot summers and sprouts later in the spring.
Why? Who knows! But this means that I’ll be a bit more restrained when harvesting from this one than the other, just to keep from weakening it too much.
I prefer to cut the stalks about an inch above the base of the plant, although they can be twisted off as well.
Rhubarb Preservation and Storage
If you’re going to use your rhubarb within 3 to 5 days, you can just store it in a plastic bag in the fridge. It’s quite perishable, however, so you should use or otherwise preserve it within that time.
If you’d rather freeze it, cut the rhubarb into 1″ pieces and blanch it for 1 minute in boiling water, the plunge it immediately into ice water to stop the cooking process.
You can freeze it flat on a cookie sheet for a couple of hours if you want to be able to separate it frozen (if you want to be able to take just a few handfuls at a time), then place it in a freezer bag. You can freeze it immediately in a freezer bag if you won’t need to separate it later.
Rhubarb also lends itself beautifully to canning, especially in strawberry-rhubarb jam and pie filling. (Recipes and links to follow!)
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The VERY BEST Rhubarb Recipes!
Ok, well, the first one is, at least. I am IN LOVE with this recipe! I got it from the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. I linked to the spiral-bound version of the book here because my paperback version doesn’t like to stay open and it annoys me!
Because I wanted to can this in quart jars, I changed the recipe so it made more. My version is as follows:
- 5 apples (peeled and chopped)
- 1/2 cup orange juice
- 11 cups of rhubarb (also chopped)
- 3 cups white sugar
- 6 1/2 cups strawberries
When I made it, the apples, rhubarb and strawberries had all been frozen, so I just thawed them before using, and it came out just fine. Fresh would work as well.
If you don’t want to can it, you can make a smaller amount, just keep the proportions the same. So, for instance, if you want to make 1/4 of the recipe (which will make 1 pie or cobbler), just multiply each ingredient by .25 on a calculator (5 x .25 = 1 1/4 cups apples, 1/2 x .25 = .125 or 1/8 cup OJ, etc.)
Once you’ve got all your ingredients, combine all but the strawberries and boil gently for 12 minutes (it takes this long for the rhubarb to break down and get tender). Then add your strawberries and bring it back just to a boil before removing from heat. That’s it!
If you’re going to go ahead and can, please follow the directions in a respected book like the Ball book. Otherwise, you can make this into a delicious (absolutely yum!) pie or cobbler or fruit bars right away.
Last time I made it, I combined 1 cup of flour, 1/2 cup of softened butter and 5 Tbsp of confectioner’s sugar for a crust, then pressed it into a 9 inch square pan. I baked the crust for 15 min at 350, then added the filling (remember to only use 1/4 of the recipe if you made it all), and bake an additional 40 minutes.
I have to admit I thought the crust was only meh, so if I find a better one, I’ll update here.
Maybe you’d prefer a recipe for strawberry-rhubarb crisp. You can find one from thereciperebel.com here. I haven’t tried this recipe yet, but will definitely be doing so in the very near future, it looks REALLY good!
If you’re looking for rhubarb jam, this recipe from All Recipes looks good, although I haven’t tried it yet either.
I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s post! If you try one of these recipes or have your own that you LOVE, please let me know in the comments. You’ll also find some pinnable images below. Be sure to pin this post for later!
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