Rhubarb is back in fashion!

 

Helen Simpson, from the Mushroom Shed, tells you all you need to know about growing rhubarb. She has also written articles about growing basil, brassicas, chilli, coriander, cucurbits, garlic, ginger & turmeric, mint, raspberries, strawberries, tomatoes and lesser known herbs.

rhubarbI often hear stories about a rhubarb plant still vigorously producing, even if planted many years ago. Often the ‘crowns’ are taken to a new home when a house is sold, or handed down through family generations. Rhubarb is becoming popular to grow again – so how is it done?

Crowns or seed

Most people grow their rhubarb plant from a ‘crown’, which is the part of the plant under the ground and consists of a rhizome and a bud. However, rhubarb can also be grown from seed. Rhubarb grown from seed will take longer. Growing from a crown gives you a good head start.

Crowns can be divided from the main rhubarb plant every five or so years – a plant that has several good sized, distinct growing points indicates divisions may work and they can usually be divided into about three parts. When digging up the crown(s), the crowns may fall apart from each other easily, but generally I’ve had to wrestle with them and split with a spade. The more care taken the better, as damaged crowns can take a while to recover.

Crowns are normally divided when the plant is dormant or growing slowly, e.g. late winter. Once separated, crowns can be re-planted about 90cm apart. Plant the crowns with roots downwards – each crown should have one or more white/pink ‘buds’ or growing points. The recommended depth is to have the top of the crown 3cm under the soil. However I’ve found to reduce the chance of rotting, planting the top of the crown slightly above the soil works best.

Soil and watering

Rhubarb is a perennial and normally stays in position for years. So it is worth making the effort to plant in a good, rich, well-drained soil. Too soggy and your crown may rot. Too few nutrients and you will get thin stalks and a small plant.

With generous nutrients and sufficient water, your rhubarb plant should reward you with an abundance of thick, long, juicy stalks. If this is not the case, try feeding with a liquid fertiliser or sprinkle fertiliser near the base of the plant and water well.

Note, however, that your rhubarb will go through a winter dormant period where, depending on the variety, it will produce fewer or no stalks.

Position

A sunny position is best, however steer away from the hot afternoon sun in summer. Rhubarb will grow in some shade, but will be smaller and thinner.

Rhubarb is best planted in the garden where it can spread out. I have seen old crowns as big as basket balls. It can be grown in a pot but make sure it is a very large one.

Harvesting

Someone told me to only harvest rhubarb in months containing the letter ‘r’, eg: October, November, February etc. There seems to be some truth in this, as no winter months contain the letter ‘r’ and this is when rhubarb is the most dormant. Generally, however, if your rhubarb is producing well, go ahead and harvest it. Giving the stalks a brisk pull downwards and sideways from the main plant will separate them without damage. Leave at least four stalks in the centre of the plant to keep it viable.

Discard the leaves, which are poisonous due to oxalic acid content, as are the roots. During the food shortages of World War 1, rhubarb leaves were promoted as a food source in the UK, leading to the discovery of their poisonous nature.

Rhubarb keeps well in the fridge, however if you forget about it, look out, as you can be left with a soggy mess. It can also be cooked down and frozen. Rhubarb must be cooked, and combines well with apple, cinnamon, orange, berries and pears.

‘Going to seed’

Sometimes your rhubarb plant may produce a seed head. Unless you want seed, I recommend cutting it off as, otherwise, production of the plant will stop for a while.

Green rhubarb?

No, it is not unripe. There are varieties of rhubarb which have mainly green stalks with minimal red colouring – Victoria is probably the greenest. They tend to be extremely productive and still taste good. I mix the vast bulk of the green stalked rhubarb with the lesser bulk of the red varieties, to get both quantity and colour. However, I find the green variety takes longer to cook down.

Finally, red rhubarb stalks can look greener in hot weather and redder in winter.

  39 Responses to “Rhubarb is back in fashion!”

  1. Hi Helen,
    Some of my rhubarb stalks are getting porous, with small longitudinal holes through them. Are they too old to eat? I’m wondering if it’s a seasonal thing.
    Regards
    Michael.

    • Hi Michael,

      This can happen with some of the older stalks – usually on the outside of the plant. You can still use them, but they might end up being a bit ‘mushy’, as they slowly die off. Better to use stalks that aren’t in this condition – for no other reason than they are fresher and easier to use. Regards, Helen

  2. My rhubarb seems to be very woody – even the new stalks. Any ideas. And thanks for all the info.

    • Hi Wendy, I’ve never experienced this myself, but internet research suggests this can happen in late summer. Perhaps it needs more water – since we’ve had a lot of rain lately, check and see if this has helped.

      Rhubarb plants go into winter dormancy shortly – this will give you an opportunity to divide it, if it’s big enough. Re-plant any divisions in a different spot and see if this makes a difference.

      Regards, Helen

  3. Hi Helen, I love your website.

    My rhubarb is doing very well, but I have chooks and would like to give it a feed of chook poo. I have read you should not use fresh chook manure on plants. I am wondering if it would be ok to use if it is spread around the perimeter of the plant?

    • Hi Eveline,

      There are two things to watch for with fresh chook poo – it can burn your plants and it can also contain harmful organisms. Whilst it takes longer, it’s recommended you compost it first.

      There are a number of good articles on the internet about how to compost it quickly.

      Regards, Helen

  4. G’day Helen. I live in a VICHousing unit at Yarragon, east of Melbourne. When I moved in two years ago, I found that there was a rhubarb plant at the north-facing side of the unit against a brick wall. I love rhubarb but it was producing only a small amount of medium thickness red stalks which I harvested as necessary (great on weetbix with natural yoghurt every day). After removing all the weeds around the crowns, I discovered that there were five crowns, some about 100mm in diameter and a couple of smaller ones about 50-60 mm in diameter. Today, I decided to dig the whole garden up (it’s only a strip really – about 7 metres long by 400mm ) for a spring planting and dug (or should I say excavated) the rhubarb crowns out. Well, what a job! The root system was off in all directions. They were up to 75mm in circumference and up to 600mm long. I always thought that the crowns were basically rootless like a potato. I was staggered to discover such a huge root system. Without researching, I just broke the crowns off the roots thinking to re-plant them in a more suitably semi-shaded spot.

    I’m wondering if I’ve destroyed them by removing the roots. The leaves rarely got taller than about 300mm. I see other gardens with rhubarb that resemble the Amazon and wonder the best way to get juicy red tall leaves? Any tips would be great including the best time to re-plant – if I haven’t murdered them that is. 🙂

    • Hi Mike,

      If your rhubarb plant is growing, then all is good (however, next time you separate the crowns, leave the roots on). It’ll take a few months to grow new roots and re-establish.

      Feed it with lots of manure and make sure it’s well watered (not soggy) and it will grow larger.

      Best time to divide is winter – but rhubarb is a tough plant, so done now should still be OK.

      Regards, Helen

      • My rhubarb looks terrible. The leaves have holes plus small brown spots. The stems are woody and thin. What can I do?

        Jane

        • Hi Jane,

          It sounds like your rhubarb is pest damage, diseased, or both.

          Over winter, I’d completely rejuvenate it by digging it up, cutting off most of the stems/leaves, then dividing it (if there are crowns you can divide off). Re-plant crowns in a different, well drained spot, with lots of manure dug in.

          You should be rewarded for your efforts in Spring.

          Regards, Helen

    • Hi

      I’m new to growing rhubarb and moved into our new home with green rhubarb growing. We have now finished it. Do we cut it all back if we don’t dig it up and divide this year?

      Also I love this site. We are located in The Basin. We have so much to learn about our vegetable garden.

      • Hi Catherine,

        The green rhubarb will probably naturally die back over winter, so just leave it as is. If you have cut a lot from it, give it some time to regenerate before cutting again late Spring.

        A good feed of manure early Spring, when it starts growing again, will ensure you have a plentiful supply.

        There is no need to divide it unless you want to – eg: to give some to friends or to put some in a different place in the garden.

  5. Hi, can you move rhubarb plant that has died off after a couple of years? It’s not in a good position, but looks as though it is dead. I grew it from seed. Any help welcome thanks, Paula

    • Hi Paula,

      Rhubarb are fine to move, but it’s usually done in Winter. However, if it’s not looking good, you’ve nothing to lose by doing it now – so, yes, move it and see how you go. Regards, Helen

  6. Hi Helen. I have rhubarb crowns split into pots at start of winter then planted out at beginning of Spring. They are doing really well with lots of healthy stems. I’m so tempted to take a few stems even though not recommended in plants first season, it seems such a waste. Could you please advise me? Thanking you, Neale.

    • Hi Neale,

      Yes, I’d pick them – sounds like your plant is healthy and growing well, so I don’t see any harm.

      Regards, Helen

  7. I have just planted two good looking ‘seedlings’ in an open garden. I don’t see any crown! Does that grow underground later on?

    I have planted them in a mainly full sun position, well drained and about a foot apart. Is that ok? I realise it takes much time but I can wait. Any tips with feeding.

    I’m inner city Melbourne. Phil.

    • Hi Phil,

      Yes, the seedlings take some time to develop a good sized crown – over a year or even more. That is why crowns are not cheap to buy. Any sort of manure is good for feeding – that will make it grow much quicker. Also rhubarb plants enjoy a good water, as long as the soil drains well and they are not kept soggy. Regards, Helen

  8. I find that some of my plants produce very thin stalks while also producing larger stalks on the same plant. I believe I give the plants plenty of organic Neutrog fertilizer from Gyganic to Seamungas during winter. Could I over feed the plants causing the thinner stems of perhaps 1/4 inch thickness?

    • Hi John. Maybe your rhubarb plant has grown several more crowns, with the older crowns producing the larger stalks and the newer crowns the thinner ones. Due to rhubarb’s winter dormancy, now is a good time to dig under the ground to investigate, and you can divide off any smaller crowns and re-plant elsewhere if required. Regards, Helen.

  9. Does red chilli planted close by affect rhubarb growth?

  10. Hi Helen. Our plant keeps going to seed. Why & is there a way to stop it flowering? Mary

    • Hi Mary,
      Mature rhubarb plants will create seed – so best to cut off the flowering stems to allow energy to go into the plant to create the leaves. However, given the dry weather over the last few months, it’s likely your plant is stressed and has gone to seed in an attempt to reproduce. So cut off the flower stalk, give it plenty of manure and keep watering. Helen

  11. My new rhubarb is growing well and the stalks are perfect size though still green. The leaves are huge (twice the size of the stems) and they get so heavy. What can I do?

    • Hi Wendy,

      I’m not sure why you think you have a problem. Many rhubarb varieties have green stems. Their leaves are always huge.

  12. Why am I producing massive leaves 500 X 450mm. And skinny stalks.

    • Hi Rob,

      You could try additional water (assuming your soil is well drained). Also, over winter, try splitting your rhubarb and separating it into several plants – each grown in their own space. My only other suggestion is that it is perhaps not getting sufficient sun – if you do split your plant in winter, you could test out some different locations and see if it makes a difference.

      Regards, Helen

  13. Hi. I have planted a Sydney crimson in a pot. The plant has taken off growth-wise. It has been in the pot for 6 months. The stems are very thick and only have a bit of red colour low on the stem. I have been told not to pick the first year and when does the red colour show its true colour. Cheers.

  14. Hi Helen. I live in Lilydale and I have bought rhubarb plants from Bunnings, planted them in a 1sqm box and am not having much luck with the plants taking! Any ideas?

    • I’m assuming that you can still see the leaves on your rhubarb plants? The box you have planted them in sounds plenty big enough. If you have recently bought them and they are in good soil, with the weather getting colder your rhubarb plants may take a while to show any growth. In fact around June/July, the plants go into dormancy and may lose their leaves for a few months, before sprouting again in Spring. Regards, Helen.

    • Steve;
      I had the same problem, they just sat there and did nothing. Turns out rhubarb is very demanding on the soil so you need to fertilise them regularly with blood & bone or something similar. I use Charlie Carp diluted and give them a hit once a week. Believe me you can see them grow.

  15. Where can I buy some rhubarb crowns for my back garden?
    I’m based in Clifton Hill in Melbourne.
    I would love to grow some.

  16. Hi Helen

    What buzz it was to find your website!!!

    I was hoping to grow some Rhubarb up at Blackwood but wondering if it is toooooooo cold up there.

    Any thoughts??

    Cheers Jan

    • Hello Jan,

      Thanks for writing!

      It should be fine. We got our original crowns from a farm in Ballarat, so assuming similar climate it should grow very well, If you would like some of our ‘Ballarat’ variety, let me know and I can dig you some up.

      Cheers, Helen

      • Thanks..Ok I wil give it a go.

        I just love the Taste recipe for Stewed Rhubarb and Ginger…yum!!!

        Will come to visit you at the farmers’ market in a couple of weeks but will let you know prior.

        Happy gardening. Cheers, Jan x

  17. Hi Helen,
    Would you have a couple of good sized rhubarb roots to sell or give me for my garden? Used to grow rhubarb years ago and would love to again.
    Cheers,
    Blossom
    Blossom Organics

    • Hi Blossom,

      I’ll dig some up and bring them to the next Eltham Farmers Market, Regards, Helen

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