How to grow succulent Rhubarb

Personal advice and tips from Farmer Chris

“Rhubarb is one of the oldest and easiest crops to cultivate, and tastes delicious with our freshly picked strawberries!”

Records show that rhubarb was first cultivated in China 5,000 years ago, and became popular in Europe during the 18th Century.  It will always have a very nostalgic taste for me, as I remember as a boy picking fresh stalks for my mother to make one of my most favourite desserts – stewed rhubarb and sultanas served with a big swirl of cream! I still love it today and often put a spoon of chilled, stewed rhubarb on my breakfast muesli and find myself popping into our Café when rhubarb crumble & custard are on the menu!

I have been growing main crop rhubarb at Canalside since 2014. There are many varieties available, but I have chosen  to cultivate ‘Victoria’ and ‘Timperley Early’ for their superb taste and to ensure that we can provide our customers with farm fresh stalks from spring right through to autumn.

Botanically, rhubarb is a vegetable (it’s related to sorrel and dock) but it is often treated as a fruit despite its tart flavour. In the UK rhubarb grows in two crops:- the first arrives early in the year forced grown under pots (principally around Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford known as the ‘rhubarb triangle)’ and is the more tender and delicately flavoured; the second, known as ‘main crop rhubarb’ is grown outdoors, and arriving in spring has a more intense flavour and robust texture.

Rhubarb is a herbaceous perennial, dying down in autumn and bouncing back with incredible vigour in spring. It is easy to grow,  incredibly hardy and a healthy plant will remain productive for 10 years or more! Its leaf stalks or petioles (i.e. ‘sticks’ or ‘stems’ to most of us!) can grow up to 1 metre high and 1 metre wide.

Home-grown rhubarb tastes so much better than tinned and once planted it will grow without fuss. Given a little bit of extra care and attention it can be a star crop in your  garden, so do give it a go. You will not be disappointed!

When To Plant

You can grow rhubarb from seed, although why wait a season for them to get established when it is quick and easy to buy 1-2 year old ‘crowns’ which are readily available in local garden centres or over the internet. The time to plant crowns is November to March.

How To Grow Rhubarb

You should grow rhubarb in moist, well drained soil in a sunny position, although they will tolerate semi shade. Rhubarb plants will grow in the same spot for many years so it is well worth preparing the soil properly before you plant them – Dig in plenty of compost or well rotted manure into your soil to a depth of about 60cm (24″) and clear all weeds.

Plant the crown with the growing point at or just below the surface of the soil (approx 3cm/1″ below soil level). If you are gardening on wet soil then plant them slightly higher, so that the top of the crown sits at ground level to prevent rotting. Space plants 1m/3ft a part with 1-2m/(3-6 feet between rows as they grow large!

Do not cut any stalks in the first year so that the plants become established. From year 2, harvest stalks from April to June/Sep (depending on the variety planted) when the leaves have fully unfurled and the stems are approx 30cm/12″ in length.

Stalks should be pulled not cut to prevent rotting of the remaining stump. Pull each rhubarb stalk from the base of the stalk and twist them away from the crown. It is important to only harvest a few stems at a time, as over-cropping will reduce the plants vigour and never take more than half of the stems at a time!

Make sure that you have finished harvesting by the end of July/Sept (pending variety) in order to give the plant sufficient time to build up energy reserves for next year’s crop.

If you want to grow rhubarb early in the year, you can produce sweet, tender stems yourself by ‘forcing’. Simply cover plants in mid to late winter with a layer of straw and an upturned bucket and wait until the early spring.

You can propagate large clumps by chopping off younger pieces from the outside with a spade. Pieces that have a couple of healthy buds should produce a vigorous new clump in no time. Replace older clumps as they start to lose vigour.

Mulch with garden compost or well-rotted manure in autumn and asthe foliage dies back naturally cut away the old leaves to expose the growing points to the winter cold.

Rhubarb can be grown in large pots if you are short on space! They have big root systems so containers must hold a minimum of 40 litres of compost to be sure of producing a decent crop. Use a soil based compost with plenty of well rotted manure.

A word of warning: Only the stems of rhubarb are edible. The leaves contain oxalic acid which is toxic if eaten. Simply trim the leaves from the stems and add them to your compost heap or boil the leaves in water and produce homemade insecticide that will eliminate pests from the garden!

Tips And Tricks 

Rhubarb is undemanding but they do not like being disturbed! Choose a permanent spot in your garden where the plants can grow without interruption, year on year.

Make sure the ground is free from perennial weeds before planting and dig in a bucker or two of manure into the soil before planting.

Rhubarb plants occasionally throw up large flower spikes which look spectacular! Unfortunately, flowering weakens the plant and greatly reduces cropping so do cut off the flower stalks, discard the centre of an old clump or propagate it.

Make sure you water the plants during hot/dry summer weather – they do not tolerate drought! And always apply fertiliser over spring and autumn.

Spring: Remove rhubarb flowers as they appear. This will direct the plant’s energy into growing tasty stems instead of flowering and setting seed. Rhubarb plants will also appreciate a feed of general purpose fertiliser in spring to give them a boost.

Summer: Water rhubarb plants during dry periods to prevent the soil from drying out. Rhubarb that is grown in containers will need to be watered much more often in order to keep the compost moist.

Autumn: When the leaves die back naturally, simply cut back the old rhubarb stalks to leave the buds exposed to cold winter weather. Apply a mulch of well rotted manure around the crown of the plant. This will help to conserve moisture in the soil and keep the weeds down, as well as feeding the plants for the following growing season. Take care not to cover the crown as this may cause it to rot.

Winter: Every 5 or 6 years you will need to lift and divide rhubarb crowns to maintain their vigour and ensure that they remain productive. Use a spade to lift each crown before splitting it into 3 or 4 pieces and replanting them separately. Make sure that each piece has a healthy looking bud which will become the growth point for next year’s new shoots.

Tips From Our Cafe Kitchen

Preparing Rhubarb: Rhubarb leaves contain a poison (oxalic acid) and should never be eaten – cut them off and discard. Wash under a cold water and if the stalks have tough stringy ribs, strip them off with a sharp knife. Slice the stalk thinly or thickly as required.

Storing in the Fridge: Rhubarb wilts quite quickly so once picked store it in the fridge and eat within 2 days. Keep the leaves on until ready to eat as they will help keep it fresh.

Storing in the Freezer: Rhubarb freezes particularly well so you can enjoy it all year round!  Cut stalks into 1-inch pieces, lay them flat on a parchment-lined baking pan, and freeze until firm. Transfer to freezer bags and store in the freezer for up to a year. You can use frozen rhubarb in the same way as fresh in recipes from sauces to pies.

Cooking Rhubarb: All rhubarb is too tart to be eaten raw, so it should be cooked with plenty of sugar. Stew or poach (8-10 minutes) or roast (15 minutes).

Recipe Ideas: Use to make crumbles, pies, jam, sauces, chutneys and jellies. Roast and purée to make rhubarb fool. It goes particularly well with both ginger and fresh strawberries!