It always surprises me to learn how few people have tasted rhubarb, let alone raise it. But my surprise is no doubt connected to my upbringing.
Growing up in a Midwestern Scandinavian family, rhubarb — or pie plant, as my Swedish grandmother called it — was a welcome harbinger of spring.
Rhubarb was first cultivated in the Far East more than 2,000 years ago. At that time, its tangy leafstalks were used for medicinal purposes. It found its way to America in the 18th century and is now used for culinary purposes, mainly desserts, jam and sauces.
In order to stimulate spring growth, this perennial must have a winter chill of at least 40 degrees, which makes it suitable for the Rogue Valley. Although the tops die off after a heavy frost, the roots survive and produce new stalks quite early in the spring. If the root is divided every few years, it will continue to produce for several more years.
Soil that is fertile, well-drained and has plenty of organic matter will help make for good rhubarb production. It prefers summer temperatures under 85 degrees, so protecting it from hot afternoon sun in the summer is a good idea. I have mine in a raised bed on the northeast side of the house. Because rhubarb is an attractive plant, it also works well as part of the perennial garden.
February or March is the ideal time to start your rhubarb plants, and the crowns are in nurseries now. Older varieties have rather green stalks (the part we eat), but newer varieties such as Crimson Red, Crimson Cherry, Valentine and Canada Red are, as the names imply, not only more attractive, but more tender, too.
A rhubarb plant needs about a square yard of space. Loosen the soil about a foot deep, and add plenty of compost or well rotted manure. Cover the crown with no more than an inch or two with this mixture. Planting it any deeper will greatly delay production. Water well and, keeping in mind that it likes moisture during its growth season, continue to water it during the summer, too. Rhubarb is a low-maintenance plant that is seldom troubled by insects or disease.
Rhubarb needs the first year to establish a strong root system, so do not harvest any of it in its first season, and pull stalks sparingly the second year. As a rule of thumb, do not ever harvest more than half of the plant's stalks at a time, in order to preserve enough foliage to sustain a healthy crown.
Rhubarb loves manure, so the only feeding I do is a 3- or 4-inch layer of manure as a top-dressing in the spring. If you do not have access to manure, just use some compost, mixed with a handful of complete fertilizer. Although skinny stalks may indicate that it needs a bit more fertilizer, stalk size may be a part of the variety's characteristics.
If flower stalks appear, cut them off and discard, as they sap a lot of energy from the plant. And although rhubarb leaves can be composted, they should not be eaten, as they are toxic. However, they make wonderful "play umbrellas" for young children!
Harvested rhubarb keeps well in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator and can be frozen simply by cutting it into pieces and putting it in plastic bags or freezer boxes. But you may find, as I do, that it is so loved as pie or rhubarb crisp, muffins or cake that not much makes it to the freezer!
Coming up: Master Gardener Ron Bombick will teach a class on rose pruning and care from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday, March 1, at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road, in Central Point. The class is hands-on, so bring your pruners and loppers, and come dressed for the weather. Cost is $15. Call 541-776-7371 to register.
Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. Email her at email@example.com.