The Ultimate Guide to Growing Rhubarb

Until recently, I always thought that rhubarb was a fruit.

After all, that’s what one of the most delicious rhubarb recipes of all time – strawberry rhubarb pie – would lead you to believe.

However, rhubarb is actually a vegetable. Only the stalks are eaten, which have a tart flavor unlike anything else. Don’t eat the leaves! These are poisonous.

Believe it or not, it’s incredibly easy to grow. As long as the weather is cool and you provide the right growing conditions, you can grow enough rhubarb to make dozens of pies. 

Oh, and other things, too. I guess. But why would you want to?!

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Types of Rhubarb

how to grow rhubarb

There are multiple types of rhubarb you can grow in your garden. However, some of the most popular ones are those that are red, which tend to be more tender. 

Here are some of the most popular:

  • Cherry Red: sweet and not as tart, thrives in zones 2-8
  • Chipman’s Canada Red: grows tall, succulent stalks, thrives in zones 3-8
  • Crimson Red: grows well in zones 3-8 and can grow in full sunlight 
  • German Wine: one of the sweetest rhubarb cultivars, grows to to three feet wide, good for container gardens

How to Plant Rhubarb

how to grow rhubarb

Rhubarb Growing Zones

Rhubarb can be grown practically anywhere. Find your growing zone here

In zone 6 or cooler, it is an easy perennial to grow. The stalks and leaves both die back after the first frost but your plants will come back every spring.

In zones 7 to 8, you can still grow rhubarb, but it will be a short-lived perennial. You will need to pick a location with lots of afternoon shade. 

As for warmer zones, you can grow rhubarb but it’s best to grow it from seed. It should be grown as a winter annual that’s ready for harvest in March or April. 

Where to Buy Rhubarb Plants 

You can buy rhubarb seeds, crowns, or divisions from most farm and garden supply stores and seed suppliers, like Gurney’s.  

You can even buy seeds on Amazon.

You can also get divisions from friends and neighbors who are tired of the plants overtaking their lawns!

How to Grow Rhubarb from Seed 

You have a few options when it comes to planting rhubarb. You can sow seeds, plant crowns, snag divisions, or plant root balls.

Usually, planting from crowns (which I’ll tell you about below) or growing from seed is recommended.

If you’re starting from seed (as long as you don’t live in a warmer growing zone, as mentioned before) you will want to start your seeds indoors before planting.

To do this, soak your seeds in water for about two hours before you plant. Indoors, put the seeds in compost or another organic planting mixture. Put two seeds per two inch peat pot. Peat pots are necessary to make transplatnigna b it easier. 

If you’re going to plant in the early spring, I recommend making a germination station like this and starting your seeds in the winter (or ten weeks before the average last frost). Use a heat mat ,which will increase the rate of germination. 

Keep your seeds moist and transplant in early April, in most areas. Before you transplant, make sure the seeds are at least four inches tall and that you harden them off before transplanting. You may need to protect your plants with a row cover until the danger of frost has passed. 

Although rhubarb is frost-tolerant, seedlings tend to be a little less hardy when you first put them out. 

Preparing the Planting Area

Before you plant, take the time to thoroughly weed the area where you intend to plant. Do this with a hoe to make sure all deep taproots are worked up and removed. 

Put some thought into where you grow your rhubarb. You’ll want a spot that is fertile, well-draining, and located in full sunlight. Rhubarb is perennial, so you need to make sure the spot you select is ideal for the next few years…or decades! You aren’t getting rid of this plant anytime soon.

Can You Grow Rhubarb From a Stalk?

Many people wonder whether you can grow rhubarb from stalks that you have from other plants. 

I wouldn’t recommend it, although I suppose you probably could. Most of the time, rhubarb is planted from a crown.

You’ll buy crowns like these and plant them in the early spring. Usually, the crowns are about one year old. Put the crowns into the soil in the spring, as soon as the ground is workable. The roots will still be dormant and growth won’t have started. 

If you don’t have time to plant in the spring, you can also plant crowns in the fall after they have become dormant. 

To plant your crowns, you will need to dig large holes (about the size of a bushel basket. Space your plants four feet apart and plant the roots two inches beneath the soil. It seems like the spacing is a bit excessive, given the size of the crowns, but the rhubarb will sprawl as it grows. 

When you plant, take the time to mix in some compost, rotted manure, or anything organically rich. Rhubarb is a heavy feeder. 

Growing Rhubarb in Pots 

If you live in an area where the climate might be not so favorable for growing rhubarb, don’t worry – you can also grow it in a container. 

The key here is finding a container that’s large enough to accommodate it. You’ll want a pot that is at least 20 inches deep and wide. The bigger the pot, the bigger the plant can grow. 

The type of container isn’t important, but I’d recommend plastic or something light colored. Dark-colored planters or those made out of clay will warm up faster, which can often be the kiss of death for rhubarb. Make sure the container is well-draining!

Otherwise, follow all other planting guidelines when it comes to growing rhubarb in containers. They may need to be watered or fertilized more often than rhubarb grown in the ground, as containers tend to leach water and nutrients more quickly. 

How Do You Take Care of Rhubarb Plants? 

how to grow rhubarb

How to Water Rhubarb

Even moisture is essential when you are growing rhubarb! Not only do your plants need some shade during the hottest days of summer, but you also need to provide consistent moisture (at least one to two inches per week). 

Letting your plants dry out in hot weather will absolutely kill them. 

Fertilizing Rhubarb

You do not need to fertilize your rhubarb except during the time of planting. Rhubarb plants, as I mentioned, feed heavily, but you don’t want to apply a heavy chemical fertilizer when you plant or during theft in your year of growth. Too many nitrates can easily kill your rhubarb plants. 

If you must fertilize, wait until the second year, and simply top off your plants with some compost tea. 

Other Tips for Growing Rhubarb

Rhubarb should be heavily mulched to prevent weeds from taking hold. Another benefit of adding mulch is that it will help the plant retain moisture and provide a dose of nutrients to the plant (as long as you have a mulch that is organically rich). Mulching can also retain moisture. 

Every few years, you will need to dig up and split your rhubarb roots. This will provide you with new crowns that can be planted elsewhere to maximize your harvest. You should divide your plants when they are dormant, either in the fall or in the early spring. 

Protect the roots of your plants over the winter. While the buds and crown don’t need to be mulched, you should try to lightly cover the roots with mulch to protect them from the deep freeze. 

Companion Plants for Rhubarb

If you’re planting rhubarb, you may want to plant it near members of the brassica family, like kale, cabbage, turnips, or broccoli. It can also be grown near onions or garlic. 

Do not plant rhubarb near legumes. Legumes attract certain pests that also feed on rhubarb if given the opportunity.

If you want to make the most of your garden space, you may want to consider planting rhubarb near other perennials, like asparagus, strawberries, and horseradish.

Common Rhubarb Growing Problems: Pests and Diseases 

Usually, rhubarb is unaffected by pests and diseases. Just make sure you keep the area free from weeds, which can encourage these problems to develop.

Crown rot is usually the only disease you will need to watch out for. It can usually be prevented by practicing good watering habits. I recommend using soaker hoses like these to provide even, adequate moisture without overwatering your plants. 

How to Harvest Rhubarb

how to grow rhubarb

How Fast Does Rhubarb Grow?

Rhubarb grows relatively quickly, but it’s important that you be patient and wait until the second year of growth before you harvest. 

This will let the plant put on sturdy growth so it can make it through the winter. Remove all flowers that blossom in the spring. This will help the plant put all of its energy back into producing hardy stalks. 

When Should You Not Pick Rhubarb – and When is it Time to Harvest?

Don’t harvest stalks during the first growing season. You need to give your plants time to get established. 

Instead, wait until your stalks are at least 12 inches long (anything longer than 18 inches and they might taste a bit woody). 

After about three years, your harvest window will be about eight to ten weeks. You can harvest continuously during this time. Once your stalks become thin, though, you’ll want to stop harvesting as it means the plant is running out of nutrients. 

Tips for Harvesting Rhubarb

To harvest your rhubarb, gently grip the base of the stalk and pull it from the plant with a slight twist. You can also cut the stalk at the base. Just make sure you get rid of any leaves. They can’t be fed to livestock, like chickens, either. Just toss them aside. 

When you harvest, make sure you leave at least two stalks per plant. This will ensure that the plant continues to produce. I recommend leaving a few extra during your last few harvests, too, so the plant is strong going into winter.

That said, at the beginning of the fall, the stems might start to die back. This is normal. It’s a sign that the plant is entering dormancy. Remove any remaining plant debris and then mulch once the ground freezes (ideally with about two to four inches of mulch or compost). 

At harvest time, only choose fresh rhubarb with firm, crisp stalks and shiny skins. Avoid those that look limp  or have any kind of blemishes. Small leaves indicate a fresher, younger plant, but again – don’t eat them! The leaves have oxalic acid, which is toxic. 

Using Your Rhubarb Harvest

I already told you my favorite idea for how to use up rhubarb – strawberry rhubarb pie! (Hint – I always use lard in my pie crusts, and it turns out amazing. Just give it a try – you won’t regret it).

Here’s a recipe for you to check out. 

But if pie really isn’t your idea of a good time (who are you, anyway?!) you might want to check out these awesome rhubarb recipes:

What is the Best Way to Preserve Rhubarb?

The best way to preserve rhubarb is to freeze it. All you need to do is cut the stalks into one-inch pieces and lay them flat on a baking sheet. Freeze until they are firm, then store them in freezer bags. This will keep them from sticking together. 

You can also pickle rhubarb or you can process it in a pressure canner for long-term storage. 

Have you ever grown rhubarb? What are some of your favorite recipes? Let me know in the comments!

Want to learn more about farming? Be sure to take a look at these other articles.

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Author: Rebekah PierceI'm a writer and small farm owner, and lover of everything outdoors. I'm hoping to share my passion for farming, gardening, and homesteading with you on my blogging journey.

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