I became a convert, both to dehydrating and to rhubarb. I’ll be forever grateful to the friend who encouraged me to attend.
Fast forward a decade, and we now have five thriving rhubarb plants in our tiny yard and an annual family ritual of making rhubarb leather each spring. My kids and I harvest huge armfuls of rhubarb stalks and turn them into piles of eagerly anticipated leather. We all love the flavor, and I love that the “treat” I’m feeding them is technically a vegetable. (Rhubarb was only declared a fruit in 1947 to lower import tax.)
Rhubarb has a delightful tartness that lends itself perfectly not only to desserts, but to savory dishes as well. In Asia and the Middle East, you’ll find rhubarb as an ingredient in sauces and vegetable dishes. Once, I had a Swedish student who made a delicious rhubarb syrup, which he said was commonly used in Sweden for homemade soda. Numerous visitors to our yard have recollected summers as children nibbling fresh rhubarb stalks or eating dishes of fresh rhubarb dipped in sugar.
If you’re trying to get more veggies in your diet, rhubarb is certainly one to consider. High in fiber and potassium, and a decent source of vitamins C and K, it’s also low in calories.
In the garden, rhubarb is absurdly easy to grow. A hardy perennial, once you’ve planted your rhubarb, there’s not much to do but enjoy harvesting it and experimenting with it in the kitchen. They’re also striking ornamental plants, great for incorporating into your edible landscape.
Selecting Rhubarb Plants
You can buy rhubarb crowns, but because gardeners divide plants every few years, you might just ask around for some free starter plants. I got my first crown from another gardener on our local Freecycle network a decade ago, and since then I’ve not only spread it around my own yard in an attempt to keep up with family demand for rhubarb leather, but also shared divisions with friends. Of course, you may not know exactly what type of rhubarb you’re getting, but if it’s from your area, it will at least be suited to your climate. If you’re after a certain variety, however, you may have to purchase your first crowns. You can also plant rhubarb from seed, but you’ll wait longer to harvest, and the plant may not have the same characteristics as the parent plant.
Dividing should be done during dormancy, either in early spring or fall. Rhubarb prefers cooler climates with average winter temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Some varieties, including common garden rhubarb (Rheum x cultorum), will grow as far north as zone 1 and as far south as zone 9. Below zone 9, rhubarb must be grown as an annual.
Rhubarb comes in red and green stalked varieties. The green varieties are generally more vigorous and yield more, while red-colored stalks are reportedly a bit sweeter and look better in desserts.
I’ve read often that one plant produces plenty for a family, but I think that depends on the family! We easily use up everything we have from our vigorous plants for a big batch of rhubarb leather and gratefully accept donations from neighbors not using theirs. If all you’re doing is an occasional crumble, pie, or sauce, I suppose one plant would cover it. But if you become as enamored of rhubarb leather as we are, you’ll probably decide to add more, whether as an ornamental in your landscape or as a patch at the border of your vegetable garden.
Planting and Growing Rhubarb
Rhubarb isn’t fussy about soil pH and can thrive in acidic, neutral, or alkaline soil. It does require good drainage and prefers soil rich in organic matter. I’ve found these tough plants very forgiving, and they’ve done quite well in the not-very rich and somewhat clayey soil on my boulevards. Admittedly, my neighbor, who hired a permaculture designer to install her edible garden on carefully nurtured soil, has even more robust plants with thicker stalks.
Though rhubarb can tolerate light shade, plants in full sun will produce thicker, more vigorous stalks. In hotter climates, however, some afternoon shade helps rhubarb plants cope with the heat.
To plant your rhubarb crowns, dig large holes (“bushel basket size” is the phrase used by several gardening gurus) and mix in plenty of organic matter as you plant. Place roots 1-2 inches below the soil surface. Space plants 4 feet apart—these are large, sprawling plants!
New plantings should be kept moist. Established rhubarb like an inch of water a week, so keep an eye on your soil moisture meter and water when necessary.
Reportedly heavy feeders, your rhubarb will benefit from annual application of compost.
Remove the flower stems as soon as you see them to allow the plant to focus its energy on making stalks. (If you do let the plant flower, know that you can eat the buds.) Keep plants well watered and divide every three to four years. A single plant may survive 15 years without division, but dividing your plants regularly means you can have a virtually endless supply of rhubarb.
Rhubarb’s sprawling growth habit helps with weed control, so it requires little from the busy gardener. Few diseases affect rhubarb, though poor drainage may cause fungal rot. Once in a while, a virus may affect rhubarb, which can affect its growth or leaf color. If you suspect a plant has been infected, discard the plant and get a new one.
When the ground freezes, mulch with two to four inches of compost to protect your plants in winter and provide the food they need to thrive again the following season.
Wait to harvest rhubarb at least a year: your plants need time to get established. Pick lightly in the second season. Your rhubarb is ready to harvest when stalks reach a foot long. Stalks should be thick, which also makes them easier to use for cooking. If stalks are thin, likely your plant lacks nutrients, sunlight, or both. Harvest rhubarb by twisting the most mature stalks off rather than cutting to prevent spreading disease. Leave about a third of the stalks on the plant so it can continue to produce new stalks.
The leaves have toxic levels of oxalic acid, so don’t eat them, and be sure to remove them completely before eating or cooking stalks. The powerful compounds in the leaves do, however, help control weeds, so you can arrange them on the ground around your plant, and they’ll smother what tries to grow beneath them. Before you discard the leaves, see if your kids want to wave them around awhile or use them as sunbrellas—there’s usually quite a bit of imaginative play during our rhubarb harvest.
If frost damages the leaves, they may leach oxalic acid into the stalks. The stalks will likely be quite soft and not taste very good anyhow, so be sure to get what you need before a frost strikes and cover when there’s a frost advisory.
Most people harvest rhubarb before the summer heat and leave the plant alone later in the season, when there’s plenty more to eat in the garden. If you keep your plants picked through the season, though, the stalks remain usable. If you don’t, stalks will toughen and not be as tasty. Some sources suggest they may also have higher levels of oxalic acid.
What to Do With Rhubarb
All our rhubarb goes to leather and the occasional crisp, but there are plenty of other uses for this fruit-like vegetable. It’s delightful in quick breads and muffins, either on its own or together with berries. Since harvest time coincides with the beginning of strawberry season, many people combine the two in breads, crumbles, sauces, jams, and pies. Sometimes referred to as “pie plant,” rhubarb is often used in pie-making.
Sweetened rhubarb sauce is often enjoyed on its own or as an ice cream topping. You can also use it as an accompaniment to meats or turn it into a barbeque (rhubarbeque?) sauce. Some people drink the juice or use it as an ingredient in cocktails. You can make rhubarb cakes, cookies, even homemade Jello—there’s no end of inventive ways to use this amazing veggie!
The root has been used medicinally for millennia, and is thought to be useful for treating digestive complaints and skin infections. Consult with a physician before using, of course.
If you want an unusual way to celebrate spring and this intriguing vegetable, look for a rhubarb festival near you. They’re surprisingly common and feature inventive ways to honor rhubarb, including rhubarb tosses, rhubarb art, even rhubarb fashion shows. Most also have recipe tastings and can introduce you to some unexpected way to use rhubarb, including chutney and chilli.
If you enjoy rhubarb additions to your cooking, try extending the rhubarb season by freezing fresh rhubarb. It requires nothing more than chopping and freezing. Then, long after your plant has succumbed to frost, you can throw some in batches of moist muffins and breads.
Enjoy this bright taste of spring in your next recipe!
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