How to Start and Care for a Rhubarb Plant
I received a question via e-mail from a fellow gardener asking general questions about starting Rhubarb plants. I answered his questions back via e-mail and decided to share the information on the site too.
If this is the first year you planted your rhubarb do not harvest the rhubarb stalks. The plant will need time to develop the root system. If you harvest the first year, the plant will not grow well.
Rhubarb sends up stalks that have seeds / flowers, the stalks are hollow inside. It can be several times a year that your plants will shoot up seed stalks.
That is perfectly normal. For the first year, as you see the stalks leave them grow. If you have removed the seed head stalks, no problem, you did no harm to the plant yet. Just let the next one grow.
Make sure that you keep the soil moist by watering the plant at the root base very well for the first season. Don’t overhead water. For the first year don’t fertilize the plant either. You can mulch the plant to retain water with grass clippings, wood chips or mulch.
Next year (year two) in the spring, you will see red bulbs emerging from the soil. That is the start of the leaves and stalks. It will look rather funny. This is when you will need to fertilize the plant.
You can use a 10-10-10 fertlizer, Miracle-Grow All Purpose Plant Food (I follow directions on package for a gallon of water) or use well rotted mature. I would not use granular fertilizer direct on the ground because it has a way of burning your plant. I have never fertilized my plants after the second year.
If you follow my instructions for the first two years, you will have plenty of rhubarb to make up for the waiting and establishing of your plants.
When Can You Pick Rhubarb?
The year after you plant rhubarb (2nd year), you can harvest 3-4 stalks. First year you plant, the plant is still developing its root system, and yields in future years will be greatly reduced if you harvest too much. After the plant has been in the ground a couple of years you can harvest your rhubarb normally (never more than 25 percent at one picking, even when well established).
The first month to six weeks the stalks are tender. The stalks are good for using in pies, tortes etc. The last 3-6 weeks, the stems are better suited for jams and sauces.
Rhubarb can be picked when the stalks reach 12 inches in length. The thickness of the stalk doesn’t matter.
Your second year and every year following. Remove the seed heads and flowers up until mid summer to early fall. If you do not, it is NOT going to hurt your plant. It will only leave you a shorter harvesting period. The stalks get woody, even when faithfully picked. It is best to give the plant a few weeks of time before going into winter to grow a seed / flower stalk. This makes the plant stronger. If I am finished harvesting for the growing season I just leave the entire plant alone. I never remove the leaves.
For winter, spread grass clippings, leaves or 3-4 inches on mulch over the crown of the plants to protect the crowns from harsh winter weather if you live in a cold climate. Remember mulching adds nutrients to the soil.
Hope this gives you a good idea on how to grow your rhubarb. Pretty soon, you will be enjoying a plentiful crop.
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