The Ultimate Rhubarb Guide: Grow, Harvest, Cook & Preserve

The Ultimate Rhubarb Guide - Grow Harvest Cook Preserve at An Oregon Cottage

Rhubarb is one of those edible plants that’s considered a vegetable, but used like a fruit – in fact a US court decided in the 40s that it was a fruit for import regulations because that’s how it’s often used (source). It’s a perennial plant and if you can get it established in a place it likes, it’s pretty carefree, coming back year after year with minimal care. So it needs a permanent place – a rhubarb patch – where it can happily live and provide you with some of the first fruits of the gardening season.

Rhubarb is such a versatile plant to cook with and preserve – it can become a meat sauce, ice cream sauce, pie & cake filling, jam, drink and more – and yet is still a mystery to some. I often get questions asking what to make with rhubarb or how to grow it, so I’m putting all the rhubarb growing information and recipes that I’ve collected into one ultimate rhubarb guide so you’ll have one place to come for rhubarb answers (and I’ll have a place to send people!).

First, did you know that rhubarb is a member of the buckwheat family? It also has good amounts of vitamins C, K, and the mineral magnesium as well as some fiber and protein. Most people are aware that the large leaves are poisonous (I always feel sorry for the people who discovered stuff like this…), but I didn’t know until we moved into a new house with rhubarb that not all rhubarb varieties have red stalks. Some produce mostly green stalks with barely a hint of red and I’ve learned that the green-stalk variety is hardier and easier to grow than the more popular red colored plants, so if you’re having problems getting rhubarb established, switching your variety may be the way to go.

Rhubarb Guide - Growing Rhubarb at An Oregon Cottage

How to Grow Rhubarb

  1. Plant in full sun and amend the soil a bit with compost (note: in warmer climates, rhubarb may do better in partial shade, though the stems will not grow as thick) before planting rhubarb crowns about an inch below the surface.
  2. If planting more than one plant, set them at least 3 feet apart – a well established plant can grow huge!
  3. Water well and consistently throughout the growing season, especially in the plant’s first two years. After that, I’ve found them to be fairly drought-resistent – they will die back if not watered, but will produce again the next spring. Of course that’s not the way to get the best, biggest stalks, but if you can’t provide water throughout the entire season once it’s established, it should be okay.
  4. The only fertilizer it needs is a yearly topping of compost. Keeping the ground mulched with a layer of the compost, grass clippings or straw is a way to keep the ground moist as well. Just keep any mulch away from the crown of the plant, which can encourage rot.
  5. Do not harvest the stalks at all the first year after planting to allow the plant time to grow with it’s full energy (although if it looks really healthy, it probably wouldn’t hurt to harvest 2 or 3 stalks to make some muffins with!).
  6. The only other thing to remember is to remove any flowering stalks that may appear (some varieties form more of these than others), as they take away the plant’s energy we want to go to root and stalk formation.
  7. Established clumps should be trimmed or divided every 4 to 5 years – when the stalks get small and spindly or when the crown is visibly crowded. This will help the plant keep growing nice thick stems. You can dig around the edges and trim the crown down to 4 or 5 buds or you can dig most of the plant up and gift somebody with a rhubarb plant.

Rhubarb Growing Guide -Too Shaded Plant | An Oregon Cottage

I’m including a picture of my other rhubarb plant to illustrate what was mentioned in #1 above – rhubarb grown in more shady conditions will have thinner stalks and the plant and leaves won’t be as large. If at all possible, move to a sunnier spot unless the shade is allowing your plant to grow in warmer climates. Although rhubarb isn’t known for growing well in the hotter southern United States, providing shade and water (and choosing the greener variety) may allow you to grow it successfully – the top growth will probably die back at temperatures consistently above 90 degrees, causing the plant to appear dormant, but as temperatures lower in later summer the leaves should start to grow again then or the next spring.

If all you can grow is rhubarb with thinner stalks, I’d vote for growing them! If you live in an area where rhubarb isn’t sold that you know of, the easiest way to make sure you can have some each season is to find a way to grow it.

How to harvest rhubarb - An Oregon Cottage

How to Harvest Rhubarb

  • To harvest individual stalks: the easiest way to gather the stalks is to pull up from the base of the plant, twisting slightly as you pull. Most will come out pretty quickly this way, but if some don’t, you can use a knife to cut a stalk off at the base, you just have to be careful not to cut anything you don’t plan on harvesting – which is why I prefer the pull-and-twist method. Cut off the leaves and compost them.
  • When & how much to harvest: I’ve read various, sometimes conflicting, methods for when and how much to harvest your rhubarb – from only picking 1/3 of the plant during a season to cutting all the stems at once for a one-time harvest, and only spring harvesting to an all-season harvest. I aim for the middle, harvesting only the fattest stalks for about a two-month period, or until most of the new stalks are really looking thin. Every once in awhile, some stalks will look good again in the fall and I’ll harvest a few, but my main harvest is in the spring.
  • To Freeze: trim and slice and pack raw into freezer bags, removing as much air as possible (I use the straw trick). You can blanch the rhubarb first, but I don’t (are you surprised after this and this?) and it seems to come out the same for me – either way it’s a much softer end-product, but still works fine for sauces or making jam or other canned items and sometimes even muffins if the slices are diced and added still slightly frozen.

Rhubarb Recipes

Canned Honey Lemon Rhubarb Butter - An Oregon Cottage

Preserving Recipes

Honey Lemon Rhubarb Butter

Spicy Rhubarb Chutney

Easy Rhubarb Barbecue Sauce

Rhubarb Juice @ Rhubarb Central

Rhubarb Ginger Jam @ All Recipes

Strawberry-Rhubarb Jam  or Butter @ Food In Jars

Rhubarb Marmalade @ Taste Of Home

Rhubarb Syrup @ The Kitchn

Rhubarb Ketchup @ The Hungry Tigress

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie Filling @ Simply Loving Home

Strawberry Rhubarb Compote @ Putting By

Rhubarb Preserves with Orange & Ginger @ Prospect: The Pantry

Rhubarb Lime Syrup @ Hitchhiking to Heaven

Glazed Orange Rhubarb Muffins - An Oregon Cottage

Cooking & Baking Recipes

Glazed Orange Rhubarb Muffins

Rhubarb Chutney Salad Dressing

Big Crumb Coffee Cake with Rhubarb @ Smitten Kitchen

Rhubarb Takes the Cake @ Rindy Mae

Sparkling Rhubarb-Vanilla Lemonade @ Kitchen Simplicity

Sweet Spring Quinoa Salad with Ramp and Rhubarb Dressing @ The Healthy Apple

Rhubarb & Strawberry Lemonade @ Tartelette

Rhubarb Frozen Yogurt @ Eat-Spin-Run-Repeat

Strawberry Rhubarb Gummies @ The Spunky Coconut

Paleo Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp @ Pinch of Yum

Rhubarb Nut Bread @ The Alchemist

Blueberry Rhubarb Bars @ The Tasty Kitchen

Strawberry Rhubarb Upside Down Cake @ The Farm Chicks

Rhubarb Cookies with Cream Cheese Frosting @ Dulce Dough

Rhubarb Swirl Cheesecake @ Taste of Home

Strawberry Rhubarb Drop Scones @ Yankee Kitchen Ninja

Rhubarb Vinaigrette Salad Dressing @ Mother Earth News

Sources: Organic Gardening, Wikipedia & The Rhubarb Compendium

 

Comments

  1. Thanks so much for linking up to my recipe, Jami! I love rhubarb and am so glad it’s back in season again. I’ll definitely check out some of these other treats as well!

  2. Holy cow, how am I supposed to decide which one to try first!? I’m with you, I’m puttin’ in another plant this year. One is definitely not enough. And it would be awesome to have enough to freeze some.

  3. I have decided my rhubarb plants are not getting enough sun and that is why their leaves are small and few stalks are thin. I am moving them tomorrow! Thanks for all this great rhubarb information!

  4. Good info .
    Thanks!!!

  5. Great post! I love rhubarb. I’ve never grown it before, and some folks here in town say that it’s next to impossible to grow here in the desert. Since I’m usually up for a “garden challenge”, perhaps I’ll give it a try for myself, of course with your guide to help me along :) If nothing else, I’d like to buy some rhubarb and try out some of your awesome sounding recipes :)

  6. Very informative — thank you! We all love rhubarb crunch and I would love to grow some myself. However, we don’t have the room in our little raised garden and I was wondering if it is possible to grow it in a container of some sort.
    Thanks again!

    • Yes, Wanita – I’ve seen rhubarb thrive in pots, but they have to be BIG. Our neighbor has a huge plant in a about a 2 x 3 (x 2.5 tall) wood box and it’s very happy.

  7. THANK YOU!!! This is just fab!! One of my Most favourite plants and such simple healthy wholesome yummy recipes!! FYI… Rhubarb can be grown in Tucson, Arizona and at 5000- 8000 ft around around Albuquerque and Santa Fe, NewMexico…and provided with enough shade it doesnt even need that much extra water. When I lived there I had a landscaping business and people often asked us to remove beautiful rhubarb plants because they didnt know what it was or how to use it. (I wish I could have refered them to your site then!) It does equally well in the deep south if planted in semi-shade. People often plant lots of leafy things around the base of trees and rhubarb is one of them. As long as it gets morning light and afternoon shade! Single plants do great surrounded by a border of rock, wood, or glass blocks (very good for cooler climes) a foot or so away from the dimensions of the plant. Then pile the space with straw or (especially in the south where it grows) that lovely tree moss, thoroughly washed first. Put strawberry plants down in little hole among the bedding and let them grow up through the bedding. This will keep creepy crawlies away from both your rhubarb and your strawbs, and they like each other! (You can do this in Big pots for patios or porch boxes, too, and move the pots around for best sun and shade.) And you have both rhubarb and strawbs right there at your fingertips…to just pick and eat raw or to use in recipes. Smaller strawbs are always tastier and Oregon has some of the tastiest in the world. In Florida, they often use oranges and rhubarb together, you just have to be sure the oranges dont get over cooked. This is a wonderful healthful versatile plant that, like celery, actually burns more calories to eat it than it adds. If you eat it raw, which takes a bit of getting used to for people who are used to eating too much sugar and sweetener, as most Americans are. The very best way to lose weight is to lose the sugars and excess sweeteners in your diet. It will be hard at first! You’ll crave those sweeties like a vampire craves blood or a zombie caves brains! Ween yourself if your will power is weak. But the improvements in your weight, health, energy, moods, brain activity, etc etc etc, will improve so much you wont know yourself in a few weeks! Really! A table spoonfull of Local wildflower honey every morning will help fight allergies and keep you healthy all year. A dose of Local wild flower bee polin will stop those allergis n their tracks! And lovely wonderful rhubarb is just an awesome thing to add to your good diet! Go for it!…and Enjoy the summer!! *-)

    • Claudia, this is such great information for those wanting to grow rhubarb in warmer climates – thank you so much for writing this!!

  8. So excited for all the recipes! Two quick things: for picking, my mom’s rule of thumb was always to leave at least 2 growing stalks on the plant, and to pick any that had 3/4 or more on them. It seems to work well, because if you pull too close to the crown you can actually pull out the center of the crown, not just the stalk, but it also keeps the rhubarb producing. In OR, mom usually gets a larger spring crop and a small fall crop, sometimes. Also, in TX, the conventional wisdom here is to plant it as an annual (see http://www.texasgardener.com/pastissues/julaug03/rhubarb.html). I’ve only been here a couple of years, and I’m going to see if I can get it established as a perennial, but so far I’ve been growing/starting plants indoors to try and establish them a bit. Good to see others have had luck with them outside in partial shade in hot areas – I’m hoping it works for me too! :)

    • Good tips, Liz! I don’t quite understand the “3/4 or more on them” though – 3/4 what on what? I’ve always read that if you cut the stalks, you could injure other smaller stalks that are growing, hence the ‘twist and pull’ method of harvesting. I’ve never had anything other than the stalk come out when I pull, although, some stalks bread rather than come out cleanly. I’ll keep an eye out when I harvest, though, from now on! :)

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