How to grow Rhubarb
Rhubarb Growing Guide
Few crops are as carefree as rhubarb – a perennial plant that will provide loyal service year after year. Hailing from Siberia where harsh conditions and extreme temperatures are the norm, it has a somewhat easier time in British gardens and allotments. Here, clumps of rhubarb almost seem to take care of themselves, lying forgotten in the corner of a plot yet continuing to provide tasty stems year after year to add a gentle tartness to puddings and crumbles. But with very minimal effort they can offer even more, providing the first crop of the new year and having it be of the sweetest, most tender stems – a million miles away from what was contained in the eye-watering school puddings so many remember. This, combined with the attractiveness of its bright pink- or redflushed stems, means that it is a plant virtually every kitchen gardener should consider growing.
Growing Rhubarb month-by-month
Finish forcing out-of-ground clumps in the greenhouse and shed. Force rhubarb in situ using buckets or purpose-made forcing pots.
Continue to force in-ground plants. The time to harvest can be sped up by banking up a layer of warming straw against the outside of the forcing pots.
Finish forcing plants. This is also the last chance to plant fresh crowns. Add a layer of organic mulch to established clumps.
Finish mulching rhubarb before the buds set off into full growth. Thoroughly water each clump before applying the mulch.
Feed and water newly-planted crowns in dry weather. Established clumps will be providing the first stems of summer.
This is peak harvest time for summer stems. Don't twist off more than half the stems at a time and alternate picking between plants.
Keep picking stems, allowing enough time for the rhubarb plants to recover between harvests. Apply a feed of organic fertiliser.
Finish harvesting stems before mid-month so plants can gain strength and refuel rootstocks before the onset of winter.
Cut away yellowing and dead leaves as they occur to reduce the chances of any rots setting in during damp autumn weather.
Leaves will be dying off by the end of the month. Remove any remnants of old growth and add them to the compost heap.
Begin planting one-year-old crowns of new rhubarb plants after thoroughly preparing the new bed. Lift and divide established clumps.
Continue planting new crowns and dividing older plants. Begin forcing lifted plants of rhubarb for the earliest stems.
Caring for your Rhubarb plants + problems
Once it is established, there really isn’t much to do to keep rhubarb going strongly, so long as the annual mulch and summer feeds are provided. Even weeding won’t be a problem as the gargantuan leaves smother practically anything growing nearby. Young specimens may, however, require additional watering in dry summers, which is important as they establish.
In spring, plants will send out flower shoots which need to be cut away at the base as soon as they are spotted – allowing plants to put energy into flowering will weaken the crown and reduce yields. Also remove any yellowing or dead leaves to ensure enough air can circulate around the plants, and to reduce both the likelihood of disease build-up and the number of potential hiding places for slugs. Cut away old leaves at the end of the growing season once the top growth has died back.
Clumps of rhubarb should remain highly productive over many years but as they expand the centres will become less so and the outside stems will get overcrowded and drawn. Keep plants performing well by lifting and dividing them every five years. Wait until all the leaves have died back (usually by late autumn) then dig out each clump, working your way around it with a spade and levering it out from the soil. This can be hard work, especially when you’re tackling a long-established clump, but the reward in subsequent yields is certainly worth it. Now take the clump and slice it into two or three pieces with the spade blade. Don’t be shy – a good hard stab will be needed to cut right through. Discard any unproductive centres and replant only the healthy and more vigorous outside pieces. Each one should have a good section of roots and at least one fat bud – but preferably two or three. Replant the pieces as you would new crowns, in enriched soil and at the appropriate spacings.
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How to harvest Rhubarb
It can be hard to resist taking a harvest of rhubarb stems the first summer after planting, but for the best results it is better to leave well alone. The initial 12 months are about establishing a good root system and bulking out the young crowns, in much the same way as asparagus should be left to develop for a few years.
In the second summer you can take two or three stems per plant, as long as you leave at least five in place. By the third year, once the clump is a good size, harvest half the sticks at a time, leaving the others to power the clump to produce further fresh stalks. They can normally be taken from May to August, although the earliest varieties may produce tender stems as soon as April in a warm spring. Forced stalks can be cut from December or January.
To harvest a stem simply slide your hand down it as far to the base as you can then smartly twist it away from the crown to snap it off.