Find out how to grow rhubarb, a super-easy perennial that will reward you with years of delicious fruit!
We’re all about easy here at HealthyGreenSavvy, and I can’t think of anything easier than growing rhubarb! Like magic, this gorgeous plant emerges every spring, no matter how many feet of snow may have buried it in the 5-6 months of Minnesota’s winter.
Here’s what you need to know to grow your very own rhubarb — plus many reasons you’d want to!
As a time-strapped gardener, I lean hard on perennial food plants, which do their thing with precious little intervention. I make sure they’re watered, and I feed them some compost from time to time, but other than that, they do all the work and we get all the reward. Not very fair, I suppose, but such a great deal for the busy gardener!
And when most of my garden plants are just peeking out of the soil, super-early rhubarb is booming along and ready for harvest. With our ridiculously long winter and our annoyingly short growing season, those early crops are super-important!
Related: How to Grow More in a Small Garden
Why Grow Rhubarb?
Why would you want to grow rhubarb, a slightly odd veggie that most people treat as a fruit? Besides being a fabulous landscape plant, rhubarb is wonderful in so many recipes!
Technically a vegetable, rhubarb is low in calories and high in nutrients like vitamin K and potassium, which most of us don’t get enough of. Rhubarb has a delightfully tart flavor that tastes amazing in quick breads and crisps, as well as in numerous savory dishes. (Here’s my nearly failproof rhubarb crisp recipe. SO good and even reasonably healthy as desserts go.)
We grow FIVE plants for our family because we’re raving fans of the incredible homemade fruit leather you can make from rhubarb, so we use rhubarb in immense quantities.
But even if you’re not going to raise huge amounts of rhubarb for fruit leather, I urge you to consider this wonderful plant for your garden. It can be tucked into any landscape as a beautiful accent plant, or it can sit at one end of your veggie patch, where it will help hold your soil when all your annual vegetables have petered out.
And then you can enjoy it at whatever pace works for your family, adding it to your baking or making rhubarb ice cream, or whatever suits your fancy. You may well find you want more plants sooner than you think!
How to Grow Rhubarb
You can find a starter rhubarb plant (called a crown) at your local nursery or garden center (or even online). But I recommend saving your money, since it should be pretty easy to get a rhubarb plant for free.
If you’re a frugal gardener like myself, you’ll be thrilled to learn your first rhubarb plant doesn’t have to cost you a cent. Like many other perennials, rhubarb can easily be divided, and chances are someone in your neighborhood will be more than happy to dig some up for you.
Here’s what to know about getting free plants for your garden.
Rhubarb comes in green, pink and red. Greener plants tend to be more vigorous and yield more, and red is thought to be sweeter. I have something in the middle, and I think it’s great! A pleasant pink when cooked, with nice fat stalks that are easy to chop.
Rhubarb is best divided in early spring, when the plant is still dormant, but you can also do it in late fall.
Rhubarb is pretty tolerant of most kinds of soil, though it likes a good deal of organic matter and decent drainage. Mine’s always managed pretty well in our clay-ey soil.
Rhubarb is one of those vegetables that grow in shade, though it will produce more and bigger stalks in full sun.
When you find a good spot for your rhubarb, dig a large hole and backfill with soil mixed with several shovelfuls of compost or composted manure. Place your rhubarb root 1-2″ below the soil surface. Give your rhubarb a good soaking and make sure it gets at least 1″ of water each week.
Plants should be placed at least 4 feet apart.
When you see a flower stalk start to shoot up, cut it off. You want the plant to put its energy into its stalks rather than into producing seeds.
Common rhubarb can be grown in zones 1-9. In warmer climates, it prefers to be grown in light shade, though the stalks will be longer and thinner. The green variety may perform better than the red. (Here’s more info on selecting rhubarb plants if you’d like to buy yours.)
When you tuck in your rhubarb for winter, give it a nice dressing of compost to help it get off to a good start in the spring.
Rhubarb plants like to be divided every 3-5 years. In early spring, dig up your rhubarb and slice through to separate into clusters of 3-4 buds to replant. Each cluster of buds can become a new plant, either in your own yard or someone else’s. Replant immediately, incorporating plenty of compost and giving it a good soaking. If you’re not getting right into the ground, soak your division in a bucket of water. Here’s a helpful video to show you the process of dividing rhubarb.
Do not pick any of your rhubarb the first year. You want to let it get established first.
The second year pick it only lightly, taking just a few stalks from each plant. After that, have at it!
I’ve read some people leave only a few stalks when they pick, and I’ve read that you should only harvest a third. Rhubarb is so tough, I think it’s up to you. I tend to pick the biggest stalks and leave the rest, coming back for more every couple weeks or so. Keeping the plant picked helps extend its season.
Stalks are ready to harvest when they’re at least a foot long. It’s generally easier to work with thcker stalks. If stalks are thin, your plant is probably not getting enough sun or needs more nutrients in the soil (or both).
To harvest stalks, twist off at the base of the plant. Pick only about a third to half of a mature plant.
NOTE THAT RHUBARB LEAVES ARE POISONOUS. They have toxic levels of oxalic acid, so be sure to remove the leaves completely. You can lay them around the base of your plant for extra weed suppression. Some sources suggest that frost can send some of the oxalic acid into the stalks, so best to pick what you want before the frost.
If you pick from your rhubarb plant regularly, the stalks should stay tender and usable throughout the season. Otherwise, once summer begins to heat up, stalks begin to toughen. They can still be cooked and pureed, but they will be far more stringy.
If you want to save some rhubarb for later in the season, you can chop some and freeze it raw. Here’s information on the easiest food preservation methods for wanna-be preservers without a lot of extra time to master the more involved methods.
What to Do with Rhubarb
♦ Make homemade fruit leather!
♦ Use rhubarb sauce as a topping for ice cream or homemade yogurt. Or just eat it plain — it’s awesome!
♦ Make rhubarb crisp, crumble, or cobbler. Or pie, if that’s your thing.
♦ Rhubarb muffins and quick breads are utterly divine.
♦ Rhubarb juice makes a wonderfully refreshing drink.
–> You can find links to these recipes and more in my collection of rhubarb recipes here.
Do you grow rhubarb? What’s your favorite way to use it?
Here are some other favorite crops and garden strategies:
- How to Grow Spinach
- How to Grow Spaghetti Squash
- Edible Landscaping 101: Growing Fruit
- How to Grow Garlic
- 9 Ways to Grow Food in a Small Garden
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Photo credits: kaboompics, Hans, Tingeling, ulleo