A vegetable eaten as a fruit in pies and crumbles, or made into jam, rhubarb is one of the first crops of the year. Picking usually starts in March or April, depending on the variety, and continues until plants stop sending up new stalks in summer. Young plants need a year or two to establish before harvesting, but mature plants can be forced, or made to provide shoots earlier than normal.
Rhubarb cultivars vary slightly in the times they're ready for harvest. Early varieties are ready to begin picking in March or April. Wait until three large stalks have formed and their leaves are fully open. Pick the largest stalks and leave the rest to mature. Pulling and twisting gently at the base of the stem helps prevent stalks snapping in half as you pick them. You can harvest rhubarb while the plants are actively growing, which is usually until August. After this, plants won't grow new stalks to replace the ones you pick, and harvesting stalks after this time weakens plants.
Rhubarb is a perennial plant, dying down in winter and returning each spring. Young plants need one or two years' growth to become strong enough to withstand harvesting. Plants grown from seed need the most time - two years free from picking. Plants grown from crowns or divisions from mature plants need only one year, but in the second year only half the stalks should be picked. Over-harvesting young plants weakens them, making them produce fewer stalks the following year.
Depriving rhubarb plants of light, called forcing, causes them to sprout early, producing succulent, pale stalks. Cover plants with straw and an upturned bucket or traditional rhubarb forcing pot in late December or January. All that's visible at this time are the remains of dead stalks. Check plants in February for signs of life and harvest stalks as they appear. Forcing weakens plants, so remove coverings in spring and allow plants to grow naturally to build up their strength for next year's growth.
Rhubarb stays healthy and provides plentiful stalks when growing in well-fertilized, moist soil. A 7 cm (2 1/2 inch) layer of garden compost in spring helps retain moisture, but plants may also need watering during dry summer weather. Feed rhubarb in spring or summer with a general fertiliser at a rate of 70 g per square metre (2 ounces per square yard). Lift and divide rhubarb every five or six years to maintain strong growth. Dig plants up between autumn and spring, and use a sharp spade to slice them into two or three sections, each with a growing tip. Replant one section and plant others separately or give them away.
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