What could be better than rounding off your Sunday lunch with a piping hot bowl of rhubarb crumble? Or how about a delicious rhubarb pie, summery rhubarb fool, or even some homemade rhubarb jam? With so many classic rhubarb recipes to choose from you’ll have no problem in deciding how to use those juicy, pink stems ... and home-grown rhubarb always tastes so much better!
Growing rhubarb in your garden is so easy that it has even gained a reputation for thriving on neglect. So imagine how much better your crops will be with just a little extra care! Read on for some top tips on growing rhubarb and how to get the very best from your crops.
Like most crops, you can try growing rhubarb from seed if you choose, but why wait when you can get ahead of the game by planting ‘crowns’ or ‘budded pieces’. They are also much easier to establish, so they are ideal for the beginner gardener.
Rhubarb crowns are established plants that are already at least one year old and will produce a crop in the harvest season after planting - much sooner than rhubarb plants that are grown from seed. ‘Budded pieces’ are simply a portion of an established crown which can be cropped two years after planting.
There are lots of different varieties of rhubarb to choose from. These undemanding perennials are easy to grow and fantastically hardy - in fact, they actually need a winter chilling period in order to produce the best crops. A healthy rhubarb plant will remain productive for 10 years or more so they make an excellent investment. Take a look at the table below for some of our favourite varieties.
Rhubarb crowns and budded pieces are best planted in the spring or autumn while the soil is warm and moist. Potted rhubarb plants can be planted out at any time of the year so long as the soil is not frozen, waterlogged or suffering from drought. These reliable perennials are undemanding but they do resent disturbance so you will need to choose a permanent spot in the garden where your plants can grow without interruption, from year to year.
Grow rhubarb on moist, well drained soil in a sunny position if possible, although they will tolerate semi shade. Rhubarb plants will grow in the same spot for a long time so it’s well worth preparing the soil properly before you plant them. Dig in plenty of well rotted manure to a depth of about 60cm (24") and clear all weeds.
When planting rhubarb crowns or budded ‘pieces’, set them so that the top of the crown sits 3cm (1") below soil level. If you are gardening on a heavy, wet soil then plant them slightly higher, so that the top of the crown sits at ground level. This will help to prevent crown rot. Rhubarb plants can get quite large so allow a spacing of 75cm (30") between them.
If you are short on space but would still like to grow your own rhubarb then why not plant some into large containers. Rhubarb plants have big root systems so containers must hold a minimum of 40 litres of compost to be sure of producing a decent crop. Use a soil based compost such as John Innes No 3. mixed with plenty of well rotted manure. Why not try one of our Rhubarb Patio Kits?
Rhubarb plants are very low maintenance but will always produce better crops if given a little extra care. Follow these seasonal tips to help you get the best from your rhubarb plants.
Spring: Remove rhubarb flowers as they appear. This will direct the plant’s energy into growing tasty stems instead of flowering and setting seed. Rhubarb plants will also appreciate a feed of general purpose fertiliser in spring to give them a boost.
Summer: Water rhubarb plants during dry periods to prevent the soil from drying out. Rhubarb that is grown in containers will need to be watered much more often in order to keep the compost moist.
Autumn: When the leaves die back naturally, simply cut back the old rhubarb stalks to leave the buds exposed to cold winter weather. Apply a mulch of well rotted manure around the crown of the plant. This will help to conserve moisture in the soil and keep the weeds down, as well as feeding the plants for the following growing season. Take care not to cover the crown as this may cause it to rot.
Winter: Every 5 or 6 years you will need to lift and divide rhubarb crowns to maintain their vigour and ensure that they remain productive. Use a spade to lift each crown before splitting it into 3 or 4 pieces and replanting them separately. Make sure that each piece has a healthy looking bud which will become the growth point for next year’s new shoots.
Delicious pink rhubarb stems make a welcome sight from late April when there are few other crops available.
During the first year, you need to resist the temptation to harvest the stems, in order to allow Rhubarb plants to become properly established. But from the second year, stems can be harvested from April to June, when the leaves have fully unfurled and the stems are 30cm (12") long.
Pull each rhubarb stalk from the base of the stem and twist them away from the crown. It’s important to only harvest a few stems at a time, as over-cropping will reduce the plants vigour. Never take more than half of the stems at a time.
Make sure that you have finished harvesting by the end of July in order to give the plant sufficient time to build up energy reserves for next year’s crop. Don’t worry if you find that you have more rhubarb than you can use. Rhubarb freezes particularly well so you can save some to enjoy later on in the year.
A word of warning: Only the stems of rhubarb are edible. The leaves contain oxalic acid which is toxic if eaten. Simply trim the leaves from the stems and add them to your compost heap.
If you can’t wait until April for your first tasty crops then you may like to try ‘forcing’ rhubarb. In January, cover the crown with a layer of straw and then place a large container over the crown to exclude light. You can buy decorative clay pots that are specially designed for this purpose, but an upturned dustbin or a large bucket will work equally well. Forced rhubarb stems can be harvested around eight weeks after covering, which may be up to a month earlier than unforced crops.
Avoid forcing the same rhubarb crown for two years in a row as this can weaken the plant. It’s always best to have several rhubarb plants, and force just one a year in rotation.
Rhubarb really is one of the easiest crops to cultivate so why not give it a go this year! Click here to view our full selection of rhubarb plants.