Early spring is time to plant and care for rhubarb

This article has been updated. Please check our website for the most recent story.
Last Updated: 
February 13, 2004

CORVALLIS - Early spring, after the ground thaws, is the best time to plant new rhubarb plants and to divide and replant older healthy rhubarb plants. Rhubarb does best in deeply worked, fertile soil with plenty of organic matter.

Preferring full sun, rhubarb can also be grown in partial shade. Two to four plants supply the average family with all the rhubarb they can use.

Before planting rhubarb, fertilize the soil with manure, compost or a 16-8-8 commercial fertilizer in the early spring, recommended Ross Penhallegon and Pat Patterson, horticulturists for the Oregon State University Extension Service.

Plant rhubarb root sections with at least one strong bud. Space the plants three feet apart in the row and leave five feet between rows. After planting, water slowly and deeply, if needed. Water frequently and deeply throughout the growing season. Mulch with compost or other organic materials.

For the highest yields, fertilize your rhubarb plants about three times per year, once before growth starts in the early spring (in March or April, depending on your climate zone), again after growth starts and a third time after harvest. Work fertilizer into the top inch of soil and water thoroughly. A six-inch layer of compost will provide a continuous nutrient source that may last for months. Rhubarb responds well to manure.

A cool season perennial, rhubarb is one of the earliest crops harvested by home gardeners in the spring.

If you have new plants, refrain from harvesting your rhubarb the first year after planting. Each plant needs time to build up food reserves in the root to produce thick, robust stems.

Starting the second year, harvest the older leaf stalks by grasping them at the lower end, close to the main part of the plant. Pull down and to one side so the stalk snaps off clean. Never harvest all the leaf stalks off a plant— it depletes the plant's food reserves.

Only the stalks of rhubarb are edible. Remove the leaves from the stalks immediately after harvest. Rhubarb leaves contain toxins and can cause illness or death if eaten in large amounts.

Rhubarb plants produce well for several years, if they are divided every three to five years. Rhubarb suffers from relatively few pests. With good sanitation, soil aeration and crop rotation, diseases can be largely avoided.

If you want rhubarb for harvest early in the season, established rhubarb plants can be coaxed into early outdoor production. Cover plants with clear plastic in the early spring, before the crown starts to grow. As growth starts, cut 1/4-inch diameter ventilation holes in the plastic. As leaves get larger, cut the plastic to allow the leaves to grow free.

Harvested rhubarb stalks can be kept in the refrigerator for two to three weeks or frozen for longer storage. This tart vegetable, often eaten as a fruit, contains vitamin C and can be used in pies, as a stewed fruit, or in sauces for meats or poultry. If cooked with sweeter fruits such as strawberries or apples, rhubarb requires less sweetening.

Author: Carol Savonen
Source: Ross Penhallegon, Pat Patterson