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Cornell Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners: Growing Rhubarb: “A trouble-free standby”

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By M.L. Wells, Master Gardener Volunteer Cornell Cooperative Extension Allegany County

What is a veggie garden sans a clump of rhubarb set off in one corner. For we who garden in the north where it is hard to grow peaches and cherries, rhubarb is a blessing. We call it a fruit and use it as such but we eat the stalk–think celery. Unless we are a kid still in our tart stage, we eat it as a dessert. And welcome it is in late April when little else is available in the garden.

Once planted, this trouble-free standby is good to go for decades with very little aftercare. Here’s what to do: 1) Purchase year-old crowns from a reputable nursery or talk an old friend into giving you a piece of his/hers. One of my two rhubarb plants comes from John whose mother planted it 70 years ago! The other is Valentine, a Canadian-bred all red hybrid, whereas John’s is lusty and green and rosy. The hybrid is dainty and pretty. The color is great but for real rhubarb taste go for the oldie! 2) Plant crowns in early April–allow 5 feet square for each plant. Cover with 2 inches of soil and 2–4 inches of mulch. Water well if the season is dry. 3) This is a plant which loves a bushel of old manure in November, if you have it. I just pile on 6 inches of mowed leaves. 4) Like asparagus, patience is needed.

            Harvest 1–2 stalks the second year and by year three you can harvest for 2 months in the spring. When flower stalks pop up, cut off. To harvest, grasp the stalk near the base and tug. It should detach at the base. Do not eat the leaves as they are poisonous! They are okay, though, for the compost heap. Harvest until the Fourth of July then allow the plant to grow through to the frost. Remove any dead leaves over the summer.

            Rhubarb thrives in well-drained soil and full sun to part shade. Here’s how I like to eat it. Slice into 1 inch pieces and place in a pot with 1 tablespoon of water. Cover and simmer 5–10 minutes. Turn off heat and add sugar to taste, maybe 50 percent. Sometimes I add a tablespoon of strawberry or peach jam.

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