How to grow succulent Rhubarb
Personal advice and tips from Farmer Chris
Our first crop of the season!
“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!
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.