I’m looking around my garden to see what needs to be done, what worked this past year, and what didn’t. The rhubarb looks really healthy and I’ve harvested it for months. What works for me, may just work for you.
January is a perfect time of year for planting rhubarb from dormant roots or plant divisions. You can buy them or ask a fellow gardener to break off a healthy crown bud for you. I started from one plant from a friend’s garden and it has thrived here.
Rhubarb is a native of Siberia. Because our winters are not cold enough to produce bright red stems, you have to be content with the reddish tint of our coastal climate rhubarb. One plant will take up 3-4 feet of garden space in a sunny or partially shaded area. One plant is probably enough for a household, although two may provide enough to give away. Prepare the soil well before planting, digging in lots of compost, and fertilize each fall with manure. Space your new plants about 3 feet apart and place the crown just below the top of the soil. Cover with mulch and watch the magic begin!
The best rhubarb is harvested just after the leaves open and before they are completely flat. To harvest, pull or twist stems gently from lower part of the plant. Cutting stems with scissors or a knife leaves a stub that may cause rot. Leave some of the stalks on the rhubarb plant, even if your neighbor tries to get you to harvest them. The plant needs to feed itself with the remaining leaves.
Leaves of rhubarb are toxic and most critters won’t touch them. Even our pesky labradoodles, who love to eat greens in the garden, don’t chew on them. The leaves contain oxalic acid. Oxalic acid is also in spinach, beets, cabbage, and other vegetables but to a lessor degree. So take my word for it. Don’t eat rhubarb leaves.
Rhubarb has few problems with pests and diseases. Bugs do not care for rhubarb leaves but occasionally a snail or slug will take out of bite out of a stem. This is seldom a problem for the plant. Just go out after dark with a flashlight and find the culprit. I did lose a rhubarb crown last year in the wet winter. The Phytophthora fungus was most likely the cause due to poor drainage in that area of my garden.
In culinary use, fresh stalks can be eaten raw and in fresh fruit salads. Be forewarned, they are oh so tart! Most commonly, they are used in desserts and sauces with lots of sugar. Next time I make an apple/rhubarb crisp I’ll post the recipe. Rhubarb adds some tartness to my sweet apples and the blend of sweet and sour is delicious.