With origins in China dating back almost 5,000 years, rhubarb gained popularity over many centuries for its medicinal properties, particularly in the treatment of inflammation. The earliest recorded use for rhubarb as a food source is more recent. Maria Eliza Rundell listed a recipe for rhubarb tart in “A New System of Domestic Cookery” during 1806. Today, this winter-hardy vegetable remains a popular choice for many amateur gardeners.
- Skill level:
Things you need
- Rhubarb crowns
- DIY soil pH test kit
- Iron sulphate
- Garden spade
- Light fertiliser
Avoid purchasing rhubarb seeds, which can take up to three years to grow, and opt for healthy one-year old plants, referred to as “Crowns,” instead. Choose a planting area with open space that enjoys large amounts of direct sunlight and partial shade.
Prepare the soil a month before planting. Remove all weeds and stones from the planting area and add rotting organic materials to obtain a rich, fertile soil. Use a DIY soil pH test kit purchased from a gardening centre and use the instructions provided to take a reading. Aim for a pH reading of 6.5 to 7.0. Add lime to increase the pH of acidic soil or iron sulphate to reduce the pH of alkaline soil.
Plant the crowns into the soil during February and March. Use a garden spade to dig a hole slightly larger than the plant itself and position the crown in the hole ensuring the roots face downwards. Make sure the head of the crown rests 2.5cm (1-inch) below the soil surface. Cover the crown with removed soil and pat down firmly. Add copious amount of water if weather conditions are dry.
Repeat the process for each individual crown. Plant crowns in rows, leaving a space of 90cm (3-feet) between each individual plant. Add more water during periods of dry weather. Cover the stems of the plant with mulch as soon as the roots appear to reduce weed growth and retain soil moisture.
Continue watering during the dry summer months and remove weeds by hand, always taking care not to disturb the plant. Remove flower heads late in the spring, applying a light fertiliser at the same time. Use manure or compost as a mulch throughout the summer. Allow the plant to develop and strengthen during the first year of growth.
Pick rhubarb stems after an 18-month period has elapsed by twisting or cutting at the plant base. Wait until the leaves have opened completely and only pull 3 stems from each individual plant. Always pick the largest stems and ensure 3 to 5 stalks remain on the plant. Pull more stems in the following years as plant growth increases. Remove the leaves from plant after picking and discard.
Dig up rhubarb plants in the fifth year whilst dormant and split them into individual crowns using a garden spade. Make sure each new crown has an eye at the middle point. Repeat the entire process every 5 years to produce strong, healthy plants on a regular basis.
Tips and warnings
- Although a soil pH of 6.5 to 7.0 is recommended, rhubarb is hardy enough to grow in most soil types.
- Avoid eating rhubarb leaves. Rhubarb leaves contain poisonous oxalic acid which can harm the health of humans.
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