This perennial vegetable was first used for medicinal purposes more than 2,000 years ago! Today, home gardeners in northern climates are growing rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) for its deliciously tangy stems which are most often used in pies, tarts, preserves and sauces. Hardy, problem-free plants require cool weather to thrive; growth slows when temperatures exceed 80˚F.
Rhubarb may have a sweet side, but its health benefits are far from humble. Stalks are loaded with dietary fiber and include essential nutrients to keep our bodies strong. It is an excellent source of vitamins A, C and K, iron, manganese and potassium. Rhubarb is also the perfect snack for weight loss. Low in fat and cholesterol, each stalk contains only 11 calories.
Note: Leaves are poisonous if ingested; use the stems only and compost the leaves.
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Quick Guide: Planting, Growing & Harvesting Rhubarb
- Best for cooler climates
- Stems are edible, leaves are poisonous
- Needs rich, fast-draining soil in full to part sun
- Harvest by snapping off stems at the base
- Few pests or diseases aside from rhubarb curculio
Plants thrives in cool gardens with full sun to partial shade and plentiful water. In warmer climates, rhubarb benefits from light shade but forms long, thin stems. Start plants at one end of the garden, where it will not be disturbed, since it may be productive for five years or more.
Rhubarb grows best in fast-draining soil with plenty of organic matter worked in to improve tilth and loosen texture. Similar to berries, it prefers a pH on the acidic side, 6.5 all the way down to 5.5. Adjust accordingly, and add a handful of bone meal fertilizer or seabird guano to the soil if it’s lacking in phosphorus. A second application of fertilizer once growth is underway gives you strong broad stalks.
Tip: Rhubarb requires some winter chill to thicken the stems and to develop its deep red color. Mulch it heavily every fall and it will come back year after year.
How to Plant
Plant divisions in late winter or early spring. Make sure each division contains at least one bud. Set the tops of the divisions at the soil surface, space 3-4 feet apart in rows 6 feet apart. Mulch the garden area with compost, leaves, straw or well-aged manure to prevent weeds and conserve moisture.
Note: You don’t need to plant much. Three rhubarb plants will provide a small family all they need. Four plants and you’ll be giving it away to your neighbors.
Harvesting and Storage
Allow plants to mature two full seasons before harvesting. Gather the leafstalks by grasping the stem near the base of the leaf and pulling sideways and outward. Cutting with a knife is not recommended since it will leave a stub which will decay and promote fungus disease. Never remove all of the leaves from a single plant.
Whole rhubarb stalks can be stored in your refrigerator crisper for up to 5 days for fresh use. They can also be cut into 1/2 to 2 inch long chunks, placed in a Ziploc® bag, and frozen until ready for use — no cooking required!
Insect & Disease Problems
Pests are usually not a problem on this plant in the home garden. However, the (PDF), a rusty snout beetle about 3/4 inch long, can cause serious damage to the leafstalks. If present, use short-lived, organic pesticides to establish control.
Seed Saving Instructions
While it is possible to save rhubarb seed, they do not produce plants that are true to type. In other words, the plants that are produced may or may not look anything like the parent plant. It is best to take cuttings of a favorite plant. Many people get their own supply by digging up a plant from a friend.
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