What crops for 10 years or more once planted, can be turned into anything from chutneys to crumbles, suffers from almost no pests, and is refreshingly easy to grow? Why, rhubarb of course!
If you want to pull your own sensational rhubarb stalks, now’s your chance, because here comes our Planting to Harvest guide…
Where to Grow Rhubarb
Because it’ll be in the ground for so long, it’s worth taking your time deciding where to plant it. Rhubarb needs moist, well-drained soil, but shouldn’t ever be sitting in saturated soil, which might cause it to rot. It prefers a sunny spot but grows well in dappled shade too.
Soil preparation is the most important part of establishing a healthy rhubarb plant. Be thorough! Start by removing any weeds and then dig lots of well-rotted manure or nutrient-rich garden compost into the whole area.
You can plant container-raised plants at any time of the year, but it’s best to avoid times when the ground is frozen solid, very wet or, in the summer, very dry. Autumn is a great time of year to do this, or wait until spring if your winters get very cold.
Start by digging a hole deep enough so that the tip of the crown (where the stems will shoot from) sits at soil level. You can plant just one rhubarb plant, but if you’re rhubarb mad – and I don’t blame you – set the next plant at least 2.5-3ft (80cm) distant. Remove the plant from its pot, tease out the roots if they’re looking a bit tight and pot-bound, and then pop it into the hole and backfill.
You can plant rhubarb in containers, but you’ll need a big container, working up to a final capacity of at least 40 liters (10 US gallons). If you’d like to grow them like this, use a soil-based potting mix but be sure to mix in generous amounts of well-rotted manure or compost too.
How to Grow Rhubarb
Rhubarb is a low maintenance crop, but there are a few things you can do to ensure a healthier plant and better harvests. First of all, I’m afraid you’re going to have to resist the temptation to harvest in the first year after planting. This is important, because you want your rhubarb to concentrate on establishing a strong root system that will support them for years to come. This will pay off believe me, and from the second growing season you’ll have a big and beautiful plant that gives plenty of stems to enjoy.
And what else? Well, not much! Remove any flowers as they appear to keep the crown producing those delicious stems. Keep plants well-watered in dry weather, especially while they are settling in, and cut back all the leaves and stems at the end of the growing season.
Autumn is also a great time to shower established plants with a little love. Add a mulch of well-rotted manure or compost around the crown of the plant, leaving any of the big, fat buds uncovered. This will help to keep weeds down, conserve soil moisture next season and, of course, sustain this hungry plant as all those nutrients get taken down into the soil and up by the plant’s roots.
Harvesting and Forcing Rhubarb
Harvesting begins in earnest from the second growing season. To harvest, simply tug the stem sharply away from the crown, while holding it firmly at the base. Only take a few stems at once so you don’t exhaust your plants, and finish pulling stems by midsummer to give it time to recover for next year. Don’t be tempted to try eating the leaves – they’re poisonous, but can safely be composted.
You can enjoy a super-early crop of stems by ‘forcing’ crowns from late winter. Simply pop a forcing pot over the buds or the first stems that are pushing through to exclude light. This forces the stems to grow quickly upwards, giving pale, tender stems with a superior texture.
Traditional forcing pots look the business, but if you don’t have one, don’t worry – you can use a large upturned pot, bucket, or trash can – anything that excludes the light. And for extra warmth if it’s still chilly, pack in some straw around the crown. You may get stems to pull as soon as a whole month earlier than unforced crowns. Once you’ve forced the crown, remove the pot, harvest your stems, then let the plant recover – don’t force it for at least another two years. This is one reason in fact why you might want to grow two or more rhubarb plants, so there’s always one you can force for an early crop.
Rhubarb can be prolific to say the least! If you’re overwhelmed, store some: it freezes beautifully and is ideal for turning into preserves.
If you’re sitting on the fence on this one, trust me – you should definitely make room for rhubarb, especially given its dramatic, showstopping looks. It’s an asset to any garden!