Planting and Harvesting Rhubarb
The Rhubarb plant dates back thousands of years to Asia, though it has been a standard in New England and in other parts of America for centuries. This perennial plant is a tart, bitter, stalk vegetable that is commonly referred to as a fruit. It is a favorite in jams, jellies, preserves, sauces, chutney and pies either as the main ingredient or combined with other fruit such as strawberries or apples. One of the earliest harvested vegetables—May-July in New England—there was a time when New England farm children could often be found munching on raw cuts of the woody plant stalks that had been coated in sugar.
Choose an area that receives full sun, is well-drained, and has rich soil with high organic matter. Plant rhubarb crowns (not seeds) in the early spring when the ground is able to be worked and the roots are still dormant. It is fine to plant crowns before the last frost. Although the tops of the plant stalks and leaves may freeze, the base will produce new growth below the soil. You may also plant crowns in the fall after dormancy has set in. Dig large holes deep enough to cover the roots of the plant crowns about 2 inches below the ground. Space the plants about 2-3 feet apart and water well all season to allow the plants to become well rooted. New buds will push up through the soil as warmer weather arrives. Remove any flower stems that appear to ensure the plant energy stays in the crown area. It is best to not harvest any rhubarb during the first year of growth after planting in order for the plant to become hearty and established. Wait approximately 5-6 years before transplanting crowns.
When Rhubarb stalks are approximately a foot long, it is time to harvest. Do not pull stalks out to remove, instead, cut the stalks at the base of the plant or twist gently at the base allowing the base and roots to stay undisturbed. Be sure to leave at least half of the stalks on the plants to ensure healthy future harvests. Rhubarb leaves are toxic. Remove the leaves before washing, preparing, processing or eating.
Find Rhubarb Recipes in Yankee’s online database.