ALL ABOUT RHUBARB

How to grow rhubarb

Rhubarb would have to be one of the most productive and easy-to-grow perennial food plants.

As a perennial crop, good soil preparation is essential. Well-rotted manure, compost and blood and bone can be dug in with abandon, annually and prior to planting. An application of lime is also useful for those with very acid soils. 

Tolerant of total neglect, rhubarb will, however, abundantly repay any horticultural kindness such as applications of well-rotted manure, compost and moist soil during the growing season.

Rhubarb history

Native to central Asia, rhubarb has been used for its medicinal qualities for over 5000 years, while its culinary virtues are relatively a new discovery. The root was used in medicine, while the stems have only recently been seen as a food source since 1829, after the British experimented with these highly sought-after plants, and rhubarb first appeared in seed catalogue in the US. 

Popularity grew as rhubarb was not only an easy to grow perennial vegetable, it also provided the first edible crops of spring. 

Now used for everything from flavouring gin to rhubarb crumble, rhubarb’s ornamental foliage and dramatic stems also make it as decorative as it is practical.

Colour vs Quantity

Unfortunately, most greenish rhubarbs are more productive than the highly decorative red stems. However, red stems are obviously the most desirable. For the home gardener, a couple of plants will usually supply ample produce for the home cook. In commercial environments, a mix of both types help to bulk out the crop. 

‘Victoria’ is a traditional heirloom variety that is highly productive, with greenish-red stems.

Harvest

When growing from large crowns, plants should not be harvested for the first year to allow the new crown to establish in the soil. In the second year, you will be able to take up to one-third of the stems at a time and by the third year, you can harvest half the plant without any detrimental effects. 

If growing from seed, you can follow the same rules, obviously the harvest will be smaller, as plants will take a while to establish their crown. The same can be said for potted plants, depending on their size. 

When harvesting rhubarb, it is important to rip the stem from the plant. Grasp each stem near the base and jerk quickly to the side in a slightly downward motion for a clean break, and to keep the heal intact. Do not cut or prune using secateurs or a knife. This will only lead to poor hygiene, and it will not trigger the plant to produce more stems. Ripping outer stems from the plant actually encourages it to grow more.

Common Rhubarb Pests and Diseases

Fortunately, rhubarb is relatively disease and pest free in Australia. 

Snails and slugs can be an issue but these are usually easily controlled using sulphur pellets or beer traps. 

Downy Mildew, a fungal disease, can cause large dead patches on the foliage. This is usually a disease that occurs with high humidity. A copper-based spray will control this, but it is best to remove the infected stems. 

Virus has been known to wipe out rhubarb farms. If buying plants, be sure to get them from a reputable source. 

Of course, the best way to keep plants pest and disease-free, is to keep them healthy with the right growing conditions, adequate sunlight, water and nutrients.

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Key tips to growing rhubarb

• Water – rhubarb likes lots of water but must be planted in a free-draining soil. Mulch and a high level of organic matter in the soil helps to prevent the soil from drying out, while mounded rows help to allow ample drainage. 
 
• Weeding – Rhubarb hates competition, for space, light, nutrients, and water. Weeding helps to keep rhubarb healthy and productive. Again, mulch can help with this. 
 
• Fertiliser – annual applications of well-rotted compost and aged manures is ideal for improving soil structure and nutrient profile.
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