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How to Grow Rhubarb Naturally

rhubarb in planterI bet you didn’t know that rhubarb was cultivated by the Chinese as a medicinal over 2000 years ago.

In addition, there is reference of rhubarb in The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic, believed to be compiled around 2,700 years ago.

Rhubarb made its way into Europe by the 14th century. It was imported via the Silk Road. This rhubarb was known as Turkish rhubarb”. However, “Russian rhubarb” was the familiar term once the trading route went through Russia. The prized “Russian rhubarb” was traded dynamically in the seventeenth century. Note: It was rhubarb root that merchants carried from China to Western Europe and lands between.  

The term “rhubarb” is an amalgamation of the Ancient Greek brha and barbarum; rha is in reference to the River Volga and the plant. Rhubarb was first imported into the United States in the 1820s. It was mostly prominent in Massachusetts and Maine then later moved west along with the settlers.

As Medicine

rhubarb plantIn traditional Chinese medicine, rhubarb roots were used as a laxative. It was also used as an astringent, anti-inflammatory, diuretic, to stop bleeding and for various skin conditions like jaundice. In addition, a fresh poultice was applied externally for edema and fevers.

In 1778, rhubarb is documented as a food plant in Europe for pies and tarts. Many believed that it was a hybrid of the Chinese variety.

Note: The stems of the rhubarb plant are rich in vitamins A, C and K, calcium, iron, lutein and dietary fiber. Rhubarb is also an excellent antioxidant.

However, rhubarb leaves are poisonous! If consumed, it may worsen arthritis and gout conditions. Other possible side effects include abdominal pain, convulsions, low blood pressure, kidney problems, shock, mouth pain, tremors, throat discomfort, vomiting and a weak pulse. It is also recommended that you do not eat the roots!

Back to Growing

Rhubarb is a cool season perennial that is hardy, simple to grow and resistant to drought. In fact, the plant requires cool weather and doesn’t do well if temperatures exceed 80˚F (27°C).

Rhubarb can also be left in the ground and will return each season from 10 to 15 years. In truth, it is one of those plants that require very little tending. It will even withstand minimal water.

However, with optimum care, you can grow an amazing rhubarb crop.

Soil Preparation

Although rhubarb can grow in just about any type of soil, it is best to have a solid base so that it thrives. Remember, rhubarb will come back for many years and will rely on the soil you give it now. Dig a deep hole and fill it with plenty of well-rotted organic matter like compost or manure. It is best to do this approximately a month before planting so the soil conjoins.

Also, it is imperative that you remove all weeds. Rhubarb does not like to be bothered once it’s established. It is best to get rid of the weeds prior to planting instead of later when the rhubarb has been transplanted.

rhubarb in spring

Planting and Sowing

Generally it is best to plant crowns and not from seed. Plant your rhubarb in early spring. Ideal temperatures should be around 40°F (4-5°C). Low temperatures help the plant renew growth and break its winter dormancy.

Crowns need to be planted 10cm (4 inches) below the soil surface. Plus the crown buds need to be 5cm (2 inches) below the soil surface.

Rhubarb grows to about 2-4 feet. Therefore, it is important to plant your rhubarb 3-4 feet apart. If planting in rows, plant 4 to 6 feet between each row. However, spacing depends on the variety of rhubarb. In general, spacing should be 24-32 inches (60-80cm).

Crowns also need to be thinned about every 4-5 years to avoid overcrowding. Carefully, dig up the crown and gently divide it into sections. There should be at least one bud and 2 inches (5cm) of root for each section. Most crowns will give you 4-8 new root sections. Additionally, crowns should be split in the early spring when there is just a tad bit of new growth.

Soil Type

Rhubarb grows best in soil that is slightly acidic (pH 6.0-6.8). But it will tolerate acidic soil that as low as pH 5.0. The plant also likes fertile well drained soil that has plenty of organic matter. If the rhubarb does not have well drained soil it can become waterlogged which results in crown rot.

If your soil is low in phosphorous, add a handful of Organic Seabird Guano or organic bone meal.

Location

rhubarb bud about to flowerRhubarb thrives in ares with part shade. But the plant also likes a little full sun part of the day. Keep in mind; it doesn’t do well with high temperatures. You also need to avoid positioning the plant in frost pockets.

This is very important because severe frost can not only damage the plant but the leaves can leach oxalic acid into the stalks. It is the high content of oxalic acid that is poisonous.

If you get a frost, remove all parts of the plant that has been damaged. You can add the plants to your compost; the oxalic acid will successfully decompose.

Nurturing

Although rhubarb is very low maintenance, here are a few tips for a better yield:

  • Never hoe to deeply, it disturbs the roots.
  • Always make sure there are no weeds around the plant. Weed on a regular basis.
  • In the early spring, cover the crowns with a cloche or clear plastic bottle to encourage growth.
  • Cut off flowering seed stalks as soon as you notice them. Flower and seed production reduces stalk yield.
  • Fertilize in early spring and before the end of autumn. Well-rotted manure is good fertilizer. Make sure that you cover the crowns well; manure can cause rotting.
  • Never add fresh manure, it will burn the plant.
  • After the first hard frost of winter, remove all remaining stalks. Add the stalks to your compost.

Harvesting

RhubarbTo harvest, cut the stems at soil level. Make sure to leave some stems so that the plant generates more growth. It is best not to harvest the first year but to wait until the second year. This provides nutrients for a strong root system for healthy stem production the second year. Otherwise, the growth of the plant will be stunted if you pick stalks the first year. The second year you can harvest a couple stalks per plant. By the third year, you should have normal harvesting.

To extend the harvesting season you can ‘force’ the rhubarb. This is done by covering the crowns in the winter with a large pot. This prevents light from reaching the crowns. You can also further ‘force’ the plant by adding straw inside the pot. Just be sure that the straw is not directly on the crowns.

Never eat the rhubarb leaves! They are toxic!

Diseases and Insects

Rhubarb generally does not have pest problems. However, rhubarb curculio (a snout beetle around ¾ inches long) can cause extensive damage to the stalks. If you have a problem with rhubarb curculio, use short-lived organic pesticide.

rhubarb seeds

Saving Seed

It is possible to save rhubarb seed. Yet, the seed may not produce plants that are true to type. For instance, the new plant from seed may or may not look like the parent plant. Generally, it is best to get cuttings from your rhubarb when the plant is at least three years old and is overcrowded.

Cooking with Rhubarb

honey-roasted-rhubarb 2Rhubarbs fleshy petioles can be baked, boiled, sautéed, grilled and roasted.

Moreover, rhubarb pairs with just about anything. The tart flavor is a nice addition to many desserts like pies, fruit tarts, cakes, chutneys, purees, sauces, jams, salads and more.

Yes, there is a lot more to rhubarb than strawberry rhubarb pie. Although, it is a tried and true favorite.

For a great recipe try:

Vanilla Cardamom Roasted Rhubarb Compote, it is mind altering!

The recipe is simple to make and can be adapted to the dessert the suits your fancy.  Let me explain,the rhubarb can be sliced into bite sized pieces or into longer decorative lengths and served over pavlola, Greek yogurt or granola. This delicious recipe can also be pureed into a smooth compote and paired with panna cotta, ice cream or cheesecake.

 

Organic Products for Growing Rhubarb


 

Picture credit

Rhubarb seeds: fruits de la rhubarbe / rhubarb fruits via photopin (license)
Rhubarb in planter: Untitled. via photopin (license)
Rhubarb in spring: New rhubarb via photopin (license)
Bud about to flower: fleur de rhubarbe / rhubarb flower 1 via photopin (license)
Fresh picked rhubarb: Rhubarb via photopin (license)
Flowering rhubarb: rubarbhe via photopin (license)
Honey roasted rhubarb: two peas and their pod
 
 

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Mary

With over 35 years of living green and supporting a sustainable environment, we are proud to offer the finest green products and suggestions on the market.

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1 Response

  1. October 21, 2015

    […] This recipe is simple to make and can be adapted to whatever dessert you prefer. For instance, the rhubarb can be sliced into chunks, delicately cooked and served with Greek yogurt, granola or over pavlola. This delicious rhubarb compote can also be cooked down, pureed and paired with ice cream, panna cotta or cheesecake. The variations are endless!   One of my favorite ways to fix this amazing dessert is to serve it with cardamom panna cotta. I just omit the cardamom in the recipe and add a touch more vanilla bean.   Note: Rhubarb is about 95% water. You do not need to use a lot of liquid to cook it. As it heats, it releases moisture. Just add a little bit of liquid at a time and adjust if needed. Also, if you are slicing the rhubarb into bite size pieces, do not overcook. You want your rhubarb to be slightly soft and tender, not mushy.   Mid-note: It’s not too late to grow rhubarb, here are a few tips: How to Grow Rhubarb Naturally […]

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