Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Come spring, perennials can be a great motivator to get a new gardening season underway. These low-maintenance plants make a freshly thawed plot look less like a barren wasteland. Some also produce edible components, which can provide a much needed sense of accomplishment early on. One such plant close to my heart is rhubarb.

Rhubarb, which is also known as “pieplant”, originated in Central Asia and is technically classified as a vegetable. It thrives in the Wisconsin climate and soil and makes delicious pies, sauces, and preserves, especially when paired with berries and other fruits. Tart and tangy, its flavor is somewhat reminiscent of kiwi and is best enhanced with a little bit of sugar or other sweetener. Rhubarb is high in vitamin C and calcium and has been said to protect teeth against erosion from acidic beverages like cola or coffee.

There are two main varieties of rhubarb plants: those with green stalks and those with red ones. The green varieties tend to be larger and more robust and include the Victoria, German Wine, and Sutton’s Seedless cultivars. The red varieties include Ruby, McDonald, Valentine, Canada Red, and Crimson Wine.  

If you’d like to add a rhubarb plant to your plot, growing one from a set or crown is easiest. Choose a planting site in full sun or light shade and thoroughly aerate and amend the soil with compost or fertilizer. Plant the set or crown about 1-2 inches deep (so the bud is just below the soil surface) before the ground freezes in October or November. Pack soil around the set or crown, but leave the soil loose around and above the bud. Rhubarb can also be grown in containers and transplanted anytime when the ground is thawed.

It is also possible to propagate an existing rhubarb plant (or a neighbor’s – with permission) by dividing the crown. To do this, dig up the crown in early spring (you will need to mark where it is in your plot during the previous season). Next, break the crown into pieces containing one large bud to each section of crown and root. Remove broken roots and trim any long thin roots. Keep roots moist until pieces are planted. Follow planting instructions for sets and crowns in the previous paragraph. A healthy existing crown will produce 5-10 pieces to form new plants. Older crowns may produce fewer.

To care for rhubarb, water regularly (but do not allow to sit in standing water) and remove any flower stems as soon as they appear. The productivity of a rhubarb plant is based on a stored supply of food from the previous year. If flower stalks are allowed to grow, edible stalk productivity for the following growing season is hindered. Rhubarb can be fully harvested from a new plant three years after it is sown. A light harvest can be reaped during the second year.

Choose the hardiest thickest stalks to harvest and never remove more than 2/3 of the developed stalks at any one time. Do not cut the stalks; grab a stalk firmly near its base and pull to jiggle it free. Trim off the leaves, which are poisonous to eat but can be used for compost. A healthy rhubarb plant produces 4-12 lbs. of edible stalks each season. Trimmed stalks can be wrapped tightly in plastic and stored in the refrigerator for 2-3 weeks. Apply a covering of compost or fertilizer over the plant at the end of its growing season each fall to enhance food storage for the next season.

For pie recipes that use rhubarb, http://onethousandpies.blogspot.com/