Rhubarb is an attractive hardy perennial with large leaves and pink, red or greenish leaf stalks that are used as a dessert, often in pies and crumbles. Stems are usually picked in spring, but plants can be covered with a large pot to produce an early crop of blanched stalks in late winter. The flavour of rhubarb varies in sweetness depending on the age of the stems.

Rhubarb

Jobs to do now

  • Water well if dry
  • Pick stems

Month by month

Grow

Grow

Keep rhubarb free of weeds by covering the ground with a mulch of well-rotted manure or garden compost, but don’t cover the crown as it will rot.

Feed with a general purpose fertiliser in March, 100g per sq m (4oz per sq yd).

Water regularly in dry spells, so the soil stays moist and the plant continues growing until autumn.

When the top growth dies back in autumn, remove the dead leaves to expose the crown to frost – this will help to break dormancy and ensure a good crop of stalks the following year.

To get an earlier crop, you can 'force' stems. Cover the crown with a traditional forcing jar, large bucket or upturned pot in late winter, to exclude all light. If using a large pot, block any drainage holes. When the new stems reach the top of the container, they’re ready for harvesting. Forced stems are lighter in colour and more tender than those grown in the open, and are generally ready three weeks earlier.

Plant

Rhubarb needs an open, sunny site with moist, but free-draining soil, as it dislikes being waterlogged in winter. Avoid planting in sites that are particularly prone to late frosts, as the young stems may be damaged.

Rhubarb can be grown from seed, but it’s more common to plant dormant crowns between autumn and spring. You can also buy plants in pots in active growth – these can be planted at any time of year, but it's best to avoid planting in hot dry weather. 

Prepare the planting site by digging in two bucketfuls of well-rotted manure per square metre/yard. Then dig a planting hole and position the plant so the tip of the crown is just visible above the soil. If planting more than one, space them 75–90cm (30–36in) apart.

Rhubarb can also be planted in very large pots, at least 50cm (20in) deep and wide.

Common problems

Crown rot: This is a common problem caused by various soil- or water-borne fungi or bacteria. Plants look sickly, fail to grow and rot at the crown. This can spread to the stems and leaves, causing the plant die.

Remedy: Prompt action may save the plant. Remove affected areas by cutting well back into healthy tissue.

Slugs and snails
Slugs and snails

These feed on the young seedlings and you'll see the tell tale slime trail on the soil around your crop, as well as on the leaves.

Remedy

There are many ways to control slugs and snails, including beer traps, sawdust or eggshell barriers, copper tape and biocontrols.

More info on Slugs and snails

Harvesting

Harvesting

In the first year after planting, resist the temptation to harvest any stems, as this will reduce the plant’s vigour.

The following year, pick just a few stems, then up to a third or half from then on, leaving some to keep the plant in active growth.

To harvest, hold the stalk at the base and ease it out of the ground – try to avoid snapping it off.

Although rhubarb stems remain edible and tasty through summer, it’s best to stop harvesting by June, or at least only take a few stalks after then, so you don’t over-harvest and weaken the plant.

Recipes

Nigel Slater's roast rhubarb, which is allowed to brown slightly, creates a delicious mixture of sweet and tart. Best served with vanilla ice cream or frozen yoghurt.

Varieties

Get involved

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