Rhubarb is almost a necessity for any self-respecting Midwesterner. It ranks right behind the car’s winter survival kit in importance. Early homesteaders didn’t need an automobile, but they did need rhubarb.
Rhubarb varies between red-stalked, green-stalked, and everywhere in-between. The purer red-stalked types generally have smaller-diameter stalks, and somewhat smaller plants. The green-stalked varieties tend to have larger-diameter stalks and huge plants.
Tips for keeping rhubarb happy and healthy.
- Rhubarb prefers full sun, although a partial-sun spot getting at least 6 hours of sunlight is usually fine.
- When starting a new plant, either purchased or when dividing an older plant, it’s best to let the plant establish for two growing seasons before harvesting the third. Harvesting too young doesn’t give the roots a chance to develop a sturdy, healthy underground structure.
- Space rhubarb at least 3 feet apart. Keep grass and perennial weeds from encroaching, especially on the red varieties, which are less able to defend their territory than the huge-leaved green types.
- Rhubarb needs well-drained soil, and resents too-wet locations. When planting, add organic material like compost or peat moss to the soil, and be sure the plant isn’t sitting in a low spot. Plant with the uppermost ‘eyes’ or buds just below soil surface, not too deep.
- Rhubarb is considered a ‘heavy feeder.’ Old timers added well-rotted manure around each plant. In lieu of manure, granular 10-10-10 fertilizer can be used. Sprinkle about a half-cup around each plant under the leaves, keeping it out of the central crown. Cultivate in shallowly and water. Or use Miracle Gro water soluble fertilizer. Apply one gallon of solution to each plant.
- Rhubarb is best fertilized in May and June. Discontinue fertilizing by July 4. Late fertilizing can make the plant overly lush and tender going into fall and winter.
- When harvesting rhubarb, pull (sometimes accompanied by a gentle twist) the stalks rather than cutting, which leaves stubs that can be entry portals for disease.
- For the healthiest rhubarb, stop harvesting July 4 so the plant has the remainder of the growing season to replenish its strength before going into fall and winter.
- Rhubarb plants can be left in place for many years without dividing. Let the plant’s health be the guide. If the centers become empty, and all the productive grow is on the outer perimeter, then dig, divide, and reset in early spring as new growth is barely beginning, or in September.
- Always remove the large flower stalks as they arise from the plant’s center. The stalks sap strength from the plant.
Rhubarb can become a fun heirloom. My grandmother ordered a fine red rhubarb from Gurney’s sometime in the 1930’s, where it grew on their farm between Alice and Fingal, N.D. My Mom got a division, and grew it at our home in Lisbon for many years. A decade or two ago, my wife, Mary, and I dug a division from Lisbon and brought it to our home in Fargo. When we moved, the rhubarb moved along.