This is the best time of year for Rhubarb, although we are lucky to have it available all year round in New Zealand, May to October is when it is at it's peak. Nothing beats warm stewed Rhubarb added to your muesli or porridge on a cold winters morning.
Here is the low down on how to grow it and some delicious ways to enjoy this old fashion treat!
What is Rhubarb?
Rhubarb looks like a vegetable ( celery stalks, anyone?), but acts like a fruit – or rather we treat it as a fruit. Rhubarb is an perennial plant that comes up every spring, usually bigger and better than the previous year, making it a favourite of gardeners – it’s almost impossible to kill, it requires almost NO intervention or care and gets better every year. If only all plants were like that! Rhubarb is sold in stores and farmers markets in stalks like celery.
The leaves of rhubarb are poisonous and aren’t edible for humans, pets OR stock animals! Many an animal has been poisoned from rhubarb leaves, so please take care when adding it to your yard or garden. My dog won’t even eat scraps from the floor, so he wouldn’t touch rhubarb leaves with a ten-foot pole, so I have two in my flower beds.
How do I Plant Rhubarb?
Chose a location that is well-drained, fertile and in a sunny location. Now that I told you what the experts say about planting rhubarb – honest to the Good Lord above you guys, I have never killed a rhubarb. I have grown in the worst soil ever. It has grown in a terrible, sandy garden at my parent’s old acreage. I have forgotten to water it for weeks. Rhubarb is a weed, I swear.
If you are wanting a red rhubarb variety try to look for ‘Valentine’, ‘Crimson Cherry’, and ‘Canada Red’. The green rhubarbs taste just fine, but the red stalked ones can be slightly more tender.
You will most likely have purchased a rhubarb crown, which means that there are no leaves or very few. You are going to want to dig a large hole, twice the size of the crown. If you really want to make sure it grows, mix in compost and other rich organic material and backfill the hole slightly with it. Plant the crown and make sure that the roots are 1-2 inches below the surface.
Mulch around the plant to keep weeds down if wanted and to keep the moisture in.
Water the rhubarb well during the hot summer months.
When you see a seed pod/flowering stalk, remove it right away! Those pods draw energy away from the plant growing stalks that you want to eat, resulting in rubbery stalks instead of firm ones.
You can split your rhubarb every 3-4 years, just make sure to do it when the plant is dormant in the fall.
When do I Harvest Rhubarb?
If you want to start your rhubarb out right, resist the temptation to harvest it in it’s first year. The stalk are spindly and won’t be as good as they will be the next year, but you really do need to let it grow for a year and leave it. Trust me, the rhubarb will be a monster next year!
Harvest will last from 8-10 weeks but this depends on your climate as well. The best way to harvest it is to use a sharp knife at the base of the stalk and cut it off, twisting can pull at the base too much. You want to make sure to leave 3-4 stalks of rhubarb on your plant for the year, don’t cut them all off, this helps ensure continued stalk production.
You want to use rhubarb before it’s at it’s full maturity, as they tend to start to get softer the older the stalks are. You need to look for stalks that are firm, crisp and free from blemishes (if you are buying them, if you have them in your yard just cut those blemishes out, don’t waste them!).
The younger stalks are going to have smaller leaves, so when you see those huge fans of leaves those are the older stalks – still edible but try to use those first before they get too old! The older rhubarb also becomes stringy and tough and doesn’t cook up as well, so do try to make sure you harvest them early on.
How to Cook With Rhubarb
Rhubarb is primarily paired with sugar to sweeten it up and used in desserts and is almost exclusively paired with strawberries. Yes, there are other fruits paired with it, but the most anticipated flavour combination of spring is strawberries and rhubarb – and for good reason, they are both springtime produce. The flavour profile is extremely tart, with a fruity taste, thus why we treat it as a fruit more often than not. It’s a common misconception that rhubarb needs to be pink or red to be ripe, there are rhubarb varieties that are entirely green and completely fine to use. If you are looking for colour in your dishes, try to make sure that you get a variety that is pink or red.