How to Grow and Harvest Rhubarb at Home
Rhubarb, a vegetable know for its colorful stalks, signals the beginning of spring for many home gardeners; they typically begin to appear in late March and early April, and usher in a season filled with many other delicious vegetables and fruits. While they're only available for a short while in grocery stores, you can grow and harvest your own rhubarb at home—then freeze it to use all year long—by following our tips ahead.
How to Grow Rhubarb
Rhubarb is typically planted for the first time as crowns instead of seeds; these solid, woody roots come from dividing already-established rhubarb plants and allow new growers to harvest sooner than if they started from seed. Choose a spot in your garden that gets full sun and where the soil drains well—you'll want it moist but not soggy to give your plants the best chance of success. As a perennial, rhubarb will return every year, so leave three to four feet between crowns to accommodate full-grown plants.
"Since rhubarb is a perennial you can plant it in the fall or late summer, and as long as you irrigate it enough it will help establish a root system going into the winter, which will make them go dormant," says Jess Brandeisky, CSA manager at Fernbrook Farms. "Then they will really start picking up in the spring—they know their own schedule based on daylight." Improve your bed by adding local compost, or soil or fertilizer approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute, says Fernbrook Farms field manager Nick Delmar, which can strengthen the plant and encourage years of hardy growth.
When to Harvest Rhubarb
Experts suggest waiting at least a year to let the plant's roots establish themselves before harvesting the stalks; in the fall, trim the plant back to the ground to let it maximize its growth the following year. After the first year, harvest stalks when they grow to about 10 inches long and discard the leaves (they're poisonous!). "To harvest them, you want to grab the lowest stems first, they're the biggest, and then just gently pull them down off the crown," says Brandeisky. "You don't want to cut them and leave the edge on the crown, because it will rot and it could invite disease into the plant crown—make sure you strip the whole stem off the crown."
According to a guide from Oregon State University, a robust five-year-old plant will grow up to 10 choice stalks; a classic Rhubarb Pie recipe calls for six cups chopped—or about 15 stalks. Depending on how much you like rhubarb, Delmar suggests planting two to five crowns in a backyard garden.
Rhubarb connoisseurs describe the stalks' taste as tart and a bit sour, which means it isn't especially popular when eaten raw. But cooking it (and often adding sugar) makes the vegetable more palatable, turning it into a less-sweet alternative to berries and stone fruits in desserts and an unexpected addition to entrees. Stew it for topping cupcakes and shortbreads; roast it alongside beets for a savory, seasonal side dish; or make it the centerpiece of a galette at brunch.