By Mara Higdon
The best tasting vegetable I’ve ever had is rhubarb! A close relative to sorrel, rhubarb has a unique flavor that brings back memories of my grandmother’s kitchen. Used in pies and desserts, rhubarb is a fairly easy vegetable to grow. And, it packs a lot of vitamin C and dietary fiber. Rhubarb is a fabulous-looking plant that for the most part is free of disease and pests. Plant a few and you’re set for the next 10-15 years.
Rhubarb is a cool season, winter hardy perennial plant that grows from crowns. Rhubarb forms large leaves on top of long, thick stalks. Originally from the mountainous areas of China, rhubarb needs temperatures below 40°F to stimulate buds and kick start spring growth. Crowns should be planted in early spring. You will need to purchase rhubarb crowns since seed does not grow true to type. Shoot and leaves will appear and continue to grow if temperatures remain below 90°F. Once Missouri’s extreme heat sets in growth will slow and the plant may even seem dormant. As summer fades the growth will resume.
Space your crowns 24-48 inches apart and keep the rows about 36 inches apart. Rhubarb loves soil rich with organic matter so add composted manure to the planting bed. Plant them about two inches into the ground, firm them in and water immediately. Don’t harvest the first year as the leaves are building up stores for the following year. If a flower stalk is produced cut it off. The second year you can harvest the stalks by cutting stalks gradually or all at once. The leaves, which contain oxalic acid, are poisonous and can be disposed of in the compost pile. Never fear! The oxalic acid will breakdown quickly in the decomposition process.
Side dress your rhubarb with composted manure in the spring and the fall and they’ll give back with more vigorous growth. If they start looking a little crowded, thin by splitting the crowns down the center with a sharp shovel. I like the red varieties (Macdonald and Mammoth) for color in the garden and in my pies, but the green varieties (Victoria and Riverside Giant) are such tremendous producers.
Mara Higdon is the Program Director at Gateway Greening. They focus on community development throughout the St Louis area.