Growing Rhubarb

Planting, Growing, and Harvesting Rhubarb

Rhubarb Stems and Leaves

Rhubarb is a perennial vegetable famous for its tart-flavored pinkish-green stalks, though it’s used as a sweetened fruit in pies, tarts, and jams. Here’s how to plant, grow, and harvest your own rhubarb!

About Rhubarb

Rhubarb originally stems from Asia, but was brought to Europe in the 1600s and America not long thereafter. It thrives in areas with a cooler climate, making it popular in northern gardens. Rhubarb is easy to grow, but needs dormancy period to really thrive and produce an abundance of huge stalks.

The stalks are the only edible part of the rhubarb plant. These have a rich, tart flavor when cooked. The leaves of the rhubarb plant are toxic—they contain an irritant called oxalic acid—so be sure that they are not ingested.

What’s wonderful about rhubarb is that it will produce for many years—five or more. For that reason, rhubarb should be planted in its own bed in any corner of the garden where it can grow undisturbed. 

It grows well in soil enriched with plenty of well-rotted manure or compost, so some gardeners will even plant it near their compost bin!

Planting

When to Plant Rhubarb

  • Plant one-year-old rhubarb crowns in early spring as soon as the ground is workable, when the roots are still dormant and before growth begins (or as plants are just beginning to leaf out). 
  • Rhubarb can also be planted in the fall after dormancy has set in.
  • Rhubarb can be grown from seed, but this is not recommended. It takes several years for rhubarb to be mature enough to produce a good harvest.

Spacing for Rhubarb

Choosing and Preparing the Planting Site

  • Rhubarb grows best in full sun, but will tolerate partial sun.
  • Choose a site with soil that is well-draining and fertile. Good drainage is essential, as rhubarb will rot if kept too wet.
  • Mix compost, rotted manure, or anything high in organic matter into the soil. Rhubarb plants are heavy feeders and need this organic matter. Learn more about soil amendments and preparing soil for planting.
  • Soil pH is not critical, though rhubarb will grow best in a slightly acidic to neutral range (6.0–7.0).
  • Rhubarb gets big! It can grow to 2-3 feet tall and wide. Make sure you choose a site where it won’t be crowded.
  • Rhubarb does best where the average temperature falls below 40ºF in the winter and below 75ºF in the summer.
  • Before planting, eliminate all perennial weeds in the planting site.

How to Plant Rhubarb

  • Dig large, bushel basket-size holes.
  • Space rhubarb plants about 4 feet apart and plant the roots 1 to 3 inches below the surface of the soil, with buds facing up.
  • Water well at the time of planting.

Check out this video to learn more about how to plant rhubarb:

Care

How to Grow Rhubarb

  • Mulch generously with a heavy layer of straw to retain moisture and discourage weeds.
  • Water your plant well and consistently. Rhubarb needs sufficient moisture, especially during the hot, dry days of summer. 
  • Remove seed stalks as soon as they appear, as they will only sap energy from the plant that could otherwise be used for producing stalks or roots.
  • Each spring, apply a light sprinkling of a fertilizer (10-10-10) when the ground is thawing or has just thawed. See your local frost dates.
  • Overcrowding is common problem with rhubarb and can lead to subpar growth. Dig and split rhubarb roots every 3 to 4 years. Divide when plants are dormant in early spring (or late fall). Divisions should have at least one large bud on them. 
  • In the fall, remove all plant debris. Once your ground freezes, it’s best to cover rhubarb with 2 to 4 inches of an organic mulch, preferably well-rotted compost. By adding nitrogen to the soil, you’re preparing the rhubarb plants for a good spring season.

Rhubarb leaf

Pests/Diseases

Pests and diseases are rarely an issue with rhubarb, but they may be affected by:

  • Crown rot
  • Rhubarb curculio (a beetle)

Harvest/Storage

How to Harvest Rhubarb

  • Do not harvest any stalks during the first growing season, and harvest sparingly in the second year. This allows your plants to become properly established.
  • Usually after 3 years, the harvest period runs 8 to 10 weeks long, lasting through mid-summer.
  • Harvest stalks when they are 12 to 18 inches long. If the stalks become thin, stop harvesting; this means the plant’s food reserves are low.
  • Grab the base of the stalk and pull it away from the plant with a gentle twist. If this doesn’t work, you can cut the stalk at the base. To prevent the spread of disease, be sure to sanitize the knife before cutting. Discard the leaves.
  • Always leave at least 2 stalks per plant to ensure continued production. You may have a bountiful harvest for up to 20 years without having to replace your rhubarb plants.
  • It was once believed that the entire rhubarb plant becomes toxic as temperatures warm in the summer. This isn’t true, though summer-harvested stalks usually have a tougher texture than those picked in the spring. Nevertheless, after mid-summer, it’s best to leave stalks on the plant to allow them to gather energy for next year’s growth.

 

Recommended Varieties

Wit & Wisdom

Rhubarb has many other uses, from medicinal to cosmetic. See how to naturally lighten your hair with rhubarb

Recipes

Cooking Notes

Check out our list of best rhubarb recipes to put your fresh rhubarb to good use! Plus, learn how to make a rhubarb tonic.

Vegetable Gardener's Handbook

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Growing Rhubarb

Botanical Name Rheum rhabarbarum
Plant Type Vegetable
Sun Exposure Full Sun, Part Sun
Soil Type Loamy
Soil pH Neutral to Slightly Alkaline, Slightly Acidic to Neutral
Bloom Time
Flower Color
Hardiness Zones 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
Special Features