Growing rhubarb has its own rewards

When dividing a rhubarb plant, wait for it to emerge in spring and then lift it with a digging fork.

Rhubarb takes off during this time of year, with only a few weeks away from harvest for various treats.
John Zvirovski / The Jamestown Sun
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John Zvirovski, Jamestown Sun garden editor
John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun

The season for rhubarb has arrived and the plants should be growing quickly already. So often people are not quite sure what to do with this plant, but there are others that would do anything to get their hands on it!!

It is a northern crop and doesn't exist in the south, so many people are intrigued by its uses.

Rhubarb can be used for many cooking recipes, mostly desserts and jams, but all are good. The most common of all is rhubarb pie, sometimes mixed with other berries. It is a taste you will never forget and you will always look forward to when the plant is in season. Rhubarb jellies, sauces and jams are made from the plant’s red or green stalks. These stalks are cut, cubed and simmered until all the juice is extracted. Sugar is usually added as a sweetener and cornstarch or pectin as a thickening agent for jellies and jams. 

Springtime is when you will see these plants emerge. The warmer the location it is growing in the quicker it will arise in spring. Rhubarb grows from crowns on thick tubers or root systems. They rise as green or red knobs and quickly unfurl into a green triangular-shaped leaf. As the plant matures, these leaves enlarge and grow taller on long petioles in green or red, depending on the variety. The petioles, or stems of the leaves, are cut to use for culinary purposes. Do not use the leaves themselves as they are poisonous.   


Rhubarb is usually grown from divisions; however, it can be grown from seed but will take years before it will produce a crop. When dividing a rhubarb plant, wait for it to emerge in spring and then lift it with a digging fork, being careful not to damage the fleshy roots. Divide the roots so each new plant has about three growing eyes. Dig a hole about 3 feet wide by 3 feet deep and mix in well-composed manure with the soil you replace. Place the soil back into the hole until it is about 2 inches from the top. Place the division in the hole and cover with two additional inches of soil. This rich soil bed will encourage a very healthy and robust plant to mature. Leave the plants alone for the first year without harvesting any stems. In the second year, harvest only the stems that are 1 inch thick for the first month, then allow the rest to mature on the plant. In and after the third year, you can harvest all you like throughout the growing season.

I find the best rhubarb is the crop that is harvested before July 4th and I usually leave the rest on the plant after that date. If your plant produces a flower stalk in the center remove it so the energy goes into crop production and root development. These flower heads are not needed to reproduce since division is quicker and more successful.  

Always plant your rhubarb in a well-drained area that receives full sun and plenty of organic matter. Never allow your plant to become dry where the leaves begin to wilt as this will cause your plant to go into early dormancy and the vegetation will die away. Keeping your plant healthy and happy until the first fall frost will encourage many, many years of bountiful harvests. Good varieties to grow are ‘Crimson Red’, ‘Victoria’, ‘Canada Red’, and ‘Valentine’ to name a few. These all produce nice pink to red stalks that create colorful enticing jellies, jams and pies.  I am not a big baker, so I typically harvest my rhubarb to make wine or slushies for the season. I only have two plants, but they are heavy producers and can yield me 30 to 60 pounds a season.  

Whatever purpose you find for your rhubarb crop, there is always a large array of options to use your produce. They are great perennials to have in the garden and if you cannot use all the produce, there are plenty of people who would love to share in your bounty. This is the time of the year to get a division started in the garden, so find a plant source and get planting!

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