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Rhubarb

Article by: Nadia Hassani  |  Picture by: Ted Rosen
Rhubarb
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Rhubarb is an easy-to-grow perennial plant that grows best in cooler climates like ours. Once planted, it does not require much maintenance until the mature plant needs to be divided every 5 to 6 years and can be used to grow new plants. Read how to plant, maintain, harvest and divide rhubarb.
Growing rhubarb at a glance
Rhubarb should be planted in a partially sunny location in well-drained soil. Mix the soil generously with compost and other organic matter.

Select a site where the plant can grow undisturbed for 5 to 6 years. Because rhubarb needs time to become established, you can begin harvesting stalks only after the first year.

There are many different rhubarb varieties, ranging from red and pink to green. Some varieties do better in certain locations than others, so find out what variety of rhubarb other gardeners in your neighbourhood grow – or even better, try to get a piece of their mature rhubarb plant when it needs to be divided, which has to be done every 5 to 6 years.

Caution: Only the stalks, not the leaves of rhubarb are edible. The leaves contain oxalic acid, which is toxic. However, the leaves may be composted.

Also, note that there is also ornamental rhubarb, which is not edible. Procure your rhubarb from a reliable source to make sure you plant an edible variety in your garden.

Rhubarb is usually trouble-free of insects and diseases.

Planting rhubarb
Rhubarb is planted in late autumn or early spring. Before planting, cultivate the soil to the depth of 20 to 30cm and 1 metre in diameter. Dig a hole that comfortably fits the plant and place it with the crown/eye up and the roots down. The top of the crown should be 2 to 3cm below the soil surface. Loosely add soil to fill the cavity around the plant. Gently firm the surrounding soil and water generously. Space the plants about 1 metre apart.
Mark the location so you will not step on it, or disturb it otherwise before the new shoots emerge in early spring.
Caring for rhubarb
During the first year, water regularly. Once the rhubarb plant is established from the second year onwards, water the roots deeply in dry weather. Mulch around the plant to save water and suppress weeds.
Rhubarb is a heavy feeder and needs a balanced fertiliser (equal amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium) at planting and then every spring. Regular addition of compost to the soil around the plant also increases its productivity.
Some rhubarb varieties send up seed stalks when the plant is 3 to 4 years old. Cut these off as soon as possible. If you allow the plant to flower it will deplete the rhubarb of its productivity.
Summer break
The best time to harvest rhubarb is early to late spring. Starting in mid-summer, the plant begins to collect energy for next year’s growing season. While you can still harvest the stalks, it depletes the plant and it is therefore not recommended. Also, as the season progresses, the stalks tend to become pithy.
Harvesting rhubarb
Rhubarb step picture 6
Do not harvest rhubarb the first year. During the second year, depending on the vigor of the plant, you can take a light harvest of about 3 to 4 large stalks at once. In the third year, you can begin full harvest but make sure that at least half of the mature stalks remain on the plant at all times. A mature rhubarb stalk is 20 to 30cm long.
Rhubarb step picture 7
Harvest the largest stalks. Grab a stalk and…
Rhubarb step picture 8
pull it away from the crown at a slight angle and with a twisting motion. Do not use a knife.
Dividing rhubarb
Rhubarb needs to be divided every 5 to 6 years during the winter when the plant is dormant. Use a shovel to split the plant into 3 to 4 separate crowns. Each of the divisions should have an 'eye" – the large bud from which next year's stalks will emerge.
For the divisions, select a location where rhubarb has not previously been grown. Proceed as described above under "Planting rhubarb".
Growing rhubarb in containers?
Rhubarb is not suitable for container growing due to its need for very large containers necessary for its deep and wide root system.
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