Despite the nearly nonstop rain in March, By April 4 of 2011, my newest rhubarb patch was leading the way for my kitchen garden perennials. Young leaves were popping on every plant I’d set in the previous season and there was a lot of promise for a fine harvest.
My rhubarb plants are dead. All of them. Rhubarb plants in my small kitchen garden are a sixteen-year story if you count only the years since I planted my first ones. Those failed to thrive and eventually drowned during a wet season.
I learned from my drowned rhubarb and abandoned the low ground that tends to collect water during heavy rains. I committed one end of my rather small raised bed vegetable garden to perennials: rhubarb, asparagus, herbs, and (please don’t hate me) hollyhocks and lupines.
Never Enough Rhubarb
The slightly higher ground of the raised garden bed was the trick: for many years my rhubarb plants thrived. Still, there was never enough. From four plants, I’d get a modest harvest and make, perhaps, two pies and one pot of rhubarb sauce. My family doesn’t care for rhubarb, so I lacked motivation to create a larger bed. Then I met an aging farmer.
Rain continued into April of 2011, so that by April 19th there was standing water in much of my raised bed vegetable garden. My longest-established rhubarb plants were clearly stunted from having their roots submerged nearly continuously for more than a month.
In 2009, I made friends with a man in my neighborhood who was giving up on vegetable gardening. He had quite a nice rhubarb patch and told me he planned to remove it. I offered to do the work in exchange for the rhubarb plants and we agreed I’d return to excavate in the spring of 2010. I summarized the rhubarb project in a post titled Small Kitchen Garden Rhubarb Project. Happily, the project resulted in a robust rhubarb patch and a bonus herb planting bed that I finished in the fall of 2010.
And Then the Rains Came
Rain started in March of 2011 and continued until June. We had six rainless weeks during which my vegetable and fruit plants acted as though all was well. Then it rained. It rained some more, and it rained even more.
We had six rainless back-to-back weeks in 2011, and annuals and perennials alike put on terrific growth. While this was a photo of my artichoke plants on August 31, it clearly shows a hedge of happy-looking rhubarb—that’s the rhubarb I’d transplanted from a friend’s yard in 2010. An aside: I won’t plant artichokes in Central Pennsylvania again until human-made greenhouse gasses move us into hardiness zone 9. Extrapolating from the latest hardiness zone maps, that will happen before I turn 70.
The “high ground” in my raised garden bed proved lower than I’d thought, and it was clear the rhubarb there had little chance of surviving. I had higher hopes for the new rhubarb plants as the area of the yard where I’d set them had never held moisture in heavy rains.
Things looked good; I harvested lightly, made a few pies, and cooked a pot of sauce. 2012 would be the first year since starting my own kitchen garden that I’d have more rhubarb than I could possibly use.
Perennials Have Popped, but Not the Rhubarb Plants
Apparently, despite the favorable growth in 2011, my rhubarb plants suffered. I suspect that as they faded in late summer, they weren’t progressing through the natural seasonal decline of their foliage and stalks. Rather, in all the moisture, they were rotting away. This spring, even the asparagus in my raised planting bed (where rhubarb died early last year) has sprouted and looks healthy. The rhubarb, however, is absent. I’m not entirely surprised: I was suspicious last fall that the plants were hurting, but I didn’t expect them to fail… at least not ALL of them.
Only eight days after I shot the photo of artichoke plants and robust rhubarb, many streets and buildings in Lewisburg Pennsylvania were unusually wet… as was my garden. Given the lack of rhubarb sprouts this spring, I realize now that the autumn wilt of my rhubarb patch had more to do with saturated soil than it did with the plants’ transition into dormancy.
To start yet another rhubarb patch with plants from a nursery would cost $30 to $50. However, I found rhubarb at a local department store; 2 roots per bag at $3 per bag. I wasn’t shopping for rhubarb, and I’m suspicious of these pathetic-looking roots, but I took the chance and bought three packs… which turned out to hold 7 budding tubers.
Rhubarb Project Number Four
So, I face my fourth attempt to establish a rhubarb patch in my small kitchen garden. This time, I’m planting on high ground close to the house. Everything drains away from the house, so this location seems unlikely to suffer if we have another biblical rain event like that of 2011. But I’m hedging my bets: I’m building a mound on the high ground, raising the soil six or more inches above the surrounding earth.
Which leads to the “takeaway” from this little story: when you start a rhubarb bed, find a high place in your yard and make sure the roots of your rhubarb plants will never sit in saturated soil. Rhubarb has the distinction of being the least wet-tolerant plant I’ve grown in my small kitchen garden.