Do you have rhubarb in your small kitchen garden? I can’t imagine my garden without it. I’m certain that Rhubarb is almost strictly a food of gardeners; I don’t remember seeing it in the produce section in Boston’s grocery stores when I lived in Boston—or at the farmers’ market near Faneuil Hall.
In rural Pennsylvania, you can buy rhubarb in a grocery store and at the farmers’ market during the month or two it’s in season. I’m always overwhelmed by the price of rhubarb, and I note that it rarely has a prominent position in the produce section or on a farmer’s table at the market.
It seems unlikely you’ll experience rhubarb by chance. In my experience, people who know rhubarb grew up eating it at home. I imagine, however, that a lot of people have acquired rhubarb plants along with houses they’ve bought; if a former owner planted rhubarb, it’s quite likely still growing there. That gives the uninitiated a commitment-free excuse to try rhubarb.
If you’ve never tasted the stuff, don’t invest in plants. Rather, find a neighbor who’s willing to share—or buy some rhubarb stalks somewhere—and make some rhubarb sauce. The flavor might surprise you… but if you don’t care for rhubarb sauce, don’t give up on rhubarb. I’ve seen people who won’t touch rhubarb sauce devour rhubarb pie… and strawberry rhubarb pie, jams containing rhubarb, and rhubarb breads. I suspect they’d also go for a good rhubarb cake, but I’ve never seen a rhubarb cake, so I can’t be sure.
Once you’ve decided you like rhubarb, you’re ready to commit to one of the most rewarding home kitchen garden plants. Around here, you can buy rhubarb plants in nursery pots at garden stores and nurseries. A single plant runs about six to nine dollars, depending on where you buy it.
Rhubarb grows thick, tuberous roots that don’t like to be wet for extended periods. It also likes lots of sunlight and very rich soil. My dad used to dump raw horse manure around his plants to make them happy in the spring, and they never complained.
When you plant, select a place where the soil drains quickly. This is important: All my plants died one very rainy season when standing water collected for days on end. The next season, I planted in a slightly raised bed, but still lost two out of four plants when another rainy stretch saturated the soil.
Dig a hole at least six inches deeper than the nursery pot and about twice its diameter. If you cut sod to start the hole, put the sod grass-side-down in the bottom of the hole and cover it with soil and compost. If you didn’t cut sod for the hole, fill with compost and soil until the hole is as deep as the nursery pot. You should set the rhubarb roots two-to-three inches below the soil line, so if the nursery pot is full to the brim, make the hole you plant in a bit deeper.
Remove your new plant from the pot, set it in the middle of the hole, and fill around it with compost and soil until the hole is full. If there are young rhubarb stalks already growing from the roots, it’s OK for the soil to cover the bottoms of the stems. The stems themselves may not like it, but in the long-run, the plant will adjust to this planting depth; ideally, the top of the root should be three inches under ground.
Water rhubarb plants heavily for a few weeks after planting until you see new, vigorous growth.
It’s hard to kill a rhubarb plant by accident. I’ve never seen one burn from getting too much fertilizer so fertilize heavily in the spring, two or three times through the growing season, and again when you put your garden to bed in the fall. If you eschew chemical fertilizers add compost or manure often. Rhubarb grows most aggressively in mid-to-late spring, and may look pretty beat in the heat of summer. By fall, a rhubarb patch can look shot as the leaves wilt and stalks shrivel. I usually have some rhubarb-looking growth until fall, but everything above soil wastes away well before snow falls.
Don’t let the plant’s summer droopiness cause you to overlook it when watering. If the rest of your small kitchen garden needs water, so does the rhubarb. Give your plants occasional deep watering especially during dry spells.
Once stalks and leaves die back at the end of the season, mulch over the area with compost, manure, leaves, or grass clippings. Mulch will protect roots from early deep frosts, and provide some nutrition as young stalks push through in the spring. Rhubarb wakes up very early, and may be the first food you harvest in a season.
And that’s one of the most compelling reasons to plant rhubarb in your small kitchen garden: you do nothing to it from fall until spring, but it wakes up and quickly gives you a delicious fruit-like crop. This year, I harvested my first rhubarb stalks in early May while just a few of my herbs and vegetables were starting to grow. Only hardy herbs are ready in my garden as early as the rhubarb is.
In case you’ve never harvested rhubarb and made sauce, I wrote a blog entry detailing how. You can find it under the title Eat Rhubarb from Your Home Kitchen Garden. If you prefer watching over reading, here’s a video I created that explains how to make rhubarb sauce. It’s about seven minutes long. I hope you find it useful:
Here are links to articles that describe other uses for rhubarb:
Rhubarb Juice: A Many Spendored Thing – by David Perry. Many of you have heard or read me raving about rhubarb juice, a simple, healthy nectar that Dave Brown, wooden bowl maker, bread baker, birder, master canoeist, photographer, storyteller, life magician and director of the Wildbranch Writer’s Workshop first introduced me to…
Back to the Locabar: Rhubarb Margarita I’ve been hinting for weeks that I wanted a special cocktail for my birthday. Last summer we got so used to fresh, seasonal ingredients that our long winter presented a special challenge for the Cocktail Study Club. More often than not, Friday night rolled around and Charlie would say, “How about a martini?” I love his martinis but enough is enough….