Ask Farmer Tim: Rhubarb
Interested in growing or cooking with rhubarb? Tim King tells you how to care for this unique plant.
Rhubarb is a perennial plant that produces long, rosy stalks. Rhubarb is a vegetable, but is often paired with fruits and served for dessert. Rhubarb pies, crisps, and jams are traditional early spring treats. Rhubarb is also a superfood, packed with minerals, vitamins, and organic compounds. The stalks provide a great source of dietary fiber, protein, vitamin C, vitamin K, B complex vitamins, calcium, potassium, manganese, and magnesium. Folk medicine claims that rhubarb can aid in weight loss, improve digestion, increase skin health, and prevent memory loss. The taste is unique, with a sour flavor that pairs well with the sweet strawberries available in early summer.
Tim King is in charge of Field Operations at Freedom Farms. This month, he gives us a report from the rhubarb patch. He shares the secrets of rhubarb, from planting to harvest. Whether you’re interested in establishing your own patch or simply curious about what it takes to produce perfect rhubarb, Tim’s tutorial is a perfect introduction to this seasonal favorite.
How long have you been growing rhubarb?
Tim King: We’ve been growing rhubarb since we were kids. As far back as I can remember, I was picking rhubarb in the spring. We had a patch behind the house. We continue to grow it because it’s a very popular spring item. Rhubarb is a great addition to something sweet like strawberries or ice cream. It creates a bittersweet combination that is delicious.
If I want to start growing rhubarb, how should I begin?
TK: You need to start rhubarb by establishing the root which you can buy. Rhubarb should be dug up and split periodically to maintain the health of the patch. Ask a neighbor with an old plant to dig it up and then split it four ways. Each portion should contain nodes for new growth. That will dictate whether it is plantable or not. Just make sure that there are a few nodes on each piece of the root that you plant. The nodes look almost exactly the same as a potato sprout.
What time of year should rhubarb be planted?
TK: Rhubarb is planted in early spring, as soon as the ground can be worked. Make sure to prepare the soil and add compost prior to planting. Dig a furrow about four inches deep, and work in your compost. Place rhubarb root about an inch below the soil level, and mulch lightly. As you see the plant become established and begin to put out foliage, mulch it again. As the plant is becoming established it’s important to keep it weed free. Once it is fully developed the rhubarb will do a great job at shading out all the other weeds.
After planting, how much time does it take before you can begin harvesting the stalks of rhubarb?
TK: The first year some people say that you shouldn’t harvest at all. Rhubarb is similar to asparagus. I would harvest very little the first year if at all. The second year harvest it for a few weeks, then stop. Once you get to the third year you can pretty much harvest as much as you want.
How long does the rhubarb harvest last?
TK: If you have fully mature plants you can start harvesting in May and continue harvesting until the beginning of July. A very important note is that the plant will put up a seed shoot during the harvest season. You need to make sure that you snap it off before it goes to seed. If the shoot goes to seed the plant will stop producing. Keep an eye on the plant as you harvest. Once the rhubarb starts to produce smaller stemmed stalks, it’s time to stop.
Do rhubarb plants need any additional care after the harvest season is over?
TK: In the late winter or early spring you can add more compost and cover the plant again with straw mulch. Do two applications, with the second application lighter than the first. Once the plant pushes up and you can see the top of it, add more mulch and work the straw off the top of the plant. That way you will have a good mulch to inhibit weed growth and hold the moisture in soil for the rhubarb. Eventually that straw will break down into good usable soil and nutrients for the plant.
Is it true that rhubarb leaves are poisonous?
TK: Yes. Rhubarb leaves contain oxalic acid, which is poisonous. The poison is only life threatening in huge doses, but consuming any amount will make you sick. Don’t eat the leaves. Harvest the stem, pop the leaf off, and just use the stalk. Keep your livestock away from rhubarb as well.
What’s your personal favorite rhubarb dish?
TK: Obviously strawberry rhubarb pie. It’s the best! My brother Pete also makes a great rhubarb lemonade with fresh lemon, rhubarb, mint, and a little maple syrup for sweetness.