How to grow and harvest rhubarb
At this time of year one of our favourite vegetables, the mighty rhubarb, is up and running providing us with a steady supply of its uniquely flavoured sticks.
If you’re lucky enough to have an established rhubarb plant then you’ll know how easy they are to look after—little more than the occasional feed with compost and watering duties during dry spells is usually enough to ensure a bumper harvest year after year.
If you’ve not previously grown a rhubarb plant then there’s only a bit more work that needs to be done before it’s established. To ensure success, here are a few tips to help you along your way…
Image via Old Farmer's Atlantic
You could attempt to grow rhubarb from seed, but you’re much better off with a plant that has already got through its formative stages and is known as a "crown". These need to go into the ground in early spring or autumn when the soil is workable enough to be able to thoroughly remove weeds and dig in a healthy dose of compost or manure.
Make sure your compost fills a hole around twice the depth of the rhubarb’s roots before tucking in the plant so the tops of the crown are a few centimetres below the surface.
Although relatively unfussy, rhubarb plants will prefer a bit of sunshine and well-drained soil. Most importantly they’ll need room to grow. If you’re considering multiple rhubarb plants these need to be placed at least a metre apart.
Read more: Rhubarb jam recipe
A sturdy rhubarb plant. Image via Self-Reliance Magazine
Your new rhubarb plant will be thirsty, so be sure to give it plenty of water to help it establish, and remember to give it a good drink during dry spells.
Between each growing season, a top up of compost is beneficial—cover it over the surface when the plant has died back and it’ll help protect it over winter.
You should also avoid harvesting stalks in its first year of growth. As tempting as they might be, picking them could weaken the plant before it’s properly settled and it may not fully recover.
If you see a flower emerging during the growing season, chop it off. They’re huge, spectacular things but sap the energy away from the stuff you want to eat.
Read more: Rhubarb fool recipe
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One of the great benefits of rhubarb is that it’ll be ready for harvest any time from April before most other plants begin supplying you with food.
When the leaves have fully spread out and the stalks have a decent length and girth to them, break them off at the base by pulling and twisting at the same time. If your stalk snaps, be sure to remove the base separately to prevent it from rotting and allowing room for the next thrust of growth.
Rhubarb contains oxalic acid which is mostly concentrated in the poisonous leaves, so cut these off and dispose of them in the compost bin.
A healthy plant will give you a good supply of stalks through to the end of June when you should step away and allow it to die back naturally, allowing it to store up power for the next year.
Read more: Sweet spring rhubarb syllabub
Image via Gardener's World
The practice of forcing rhubarb involves depriving the plant of light in late winter to encourage an early harvest of pinker stalks. Any plant undergoing this treatment should be well established and given a good feed of compost before entering the darkness.
You can buy custom made rhubarb forcers which sit over the crown, or you can cover with a dustbin or similar large pot, making sure any holes are filled. To ward off the cold a bit of insulation with straw, fleece or bubble wrap will help.
Stalks should be ready for picking around eight weeks later.
Not only will a healthy rhubarb plant give you tasty stalks for years to come, but after a while it’ll be big enough to divide, giving you a bonus supply of free plants. The time to do this is in spring.
Simply dig your plant out of the ground and split off sections of root with a spade. As long as the new sections have at least a couple of buds and a good volume of roots they’ll have every chance of success, providing you follow the same planting pattern as your original rhubarb.
After a while of bountiful harvests, you may begin to wonder what else you can do with your tasty stalks beside rhubarb crumble. Stowing them away in the freezer for winter crumbles is the obvious answer, but we have a few other suggestions…
You can dry chopped raw rhubarb and use it as a store cupboard ingredient in a similar way to other dried fruits. Cooked rhubarb which has been sweetened and spread out on a tray can also be dried, producing a chewy sweet known as ‘rhubarb leather.’
Rhubarb pickles incredibly well and makes a great accompaniment to cheese and fish dishes. It’s best sliced into thin sticks and stacked vertically in your pickling jar.
Rhubarb makes a great jam in its own right, goes even better in a double act with ginger, but can also be mixed with any other fruit to bulk it out. So if, say, your blackcurrant harvest delivers barely enough for half a jar of jam, fear not—top up with rhubarb and the blackcurrant will still be the dominant flavour.
Rhubarb wine is one of the easiest homemade wines to taste and also one of the best tasting. It also makes a delicious liqueur when macerated in spirits for a few months with sugar.
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