Gardening with Deb Babcock: Growing rhubarb in Routt County
To learn about preserving fruit and vegetables from your garden, stop by the Master Gardener booth at the Farmers Market this Saturday. Volunteers will be on hand to answer your gardening and food preservation questions.
Steamboat Springs — Who doesn’t love a tart strawberry rhubarb pie? Or rhubarb sauce on top of ice cream and biscuits? Or even just crunching down on stalk of fresh rhubarb?
This plant is a cold hardy one that thrives in our mountain environment. It needs our cold winters and warm springs to break dormancy and foster growth. It grows best in a southern exposure with minimal shade.
Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum L.) is generally grown from divisions or crowns of matured plants rather than from seed. It is a member of the buckwheat family and a relative of sorrel and is also known as “pieplant.”
It’s best to plant it in early spring just as it comes out of dormancy, or in late fall as it goes into dormancy for the winter. It only needs to be planted a couple inches into the ground, just enough to cover the crowns. Plant it too deeply and it will struggle to produce those juicy stalks we so love. It’s recommended to plant a deep hole — maybe the size of a bushel basket — then fill it with soft soil, compost or other organic material and place the crown with the tips up in the top inch or two.
Wait until the second year and beyond to harvest the stalks so that the plant can become more established. The plant uses food generated from its leaves to nourish and establish its roots. As you note that the new stalks coming up are pretty slender, stop harvesting as the plant is running out of energy. You’ll always want to keep half to two-thirds of the plant intact when harvesting stalks and you should harvest it as soon as the leaf unfolds for the tastiest flavor.
Once planted, rhubarb should keep producing for eight to 15 years. Once it reaches the eight- to 10-year point in growth, you may begin dividing it and replanting the separated crowns. It’s a pretty large plant when full-grown so should be planted 2 to 4 feet apart.
Rhubarb should be allowed to grow until the first frost, then covered with a couple inches of mulch for the winter. You can remove part of the mulch in early spring as the plant wakes up and starts sprouting leaves.
Fertilizing rhubarb in the spring time helps the plant grow more vigorously. A cup of 10-10-10 fertilizer around each plant should do the trick.
Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener with the CSU Extension Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or email: CSUMGProgram@co.routt.co.us.
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