How to grow fresh rhubarb
To grow fresh rhubarb is easy but you need to be patient.
Once established rhubarb will keep on cropping for many years with little attention from you!
It’s a firm favourite with British gardeners and it never ceases to amaze me how many plants are sold at this time of the year!
Classified as a vegetable but eaten more as a fruit, this is one of the earliest crops to harvest.
Rhubarb also helps to fill the ‘hungry gap’ between over-wintered fruit and vegetables and the first crops of spring.
Where to grow fresh rhubarb
Ideally you should grow fresh rhubarb in a sunny open position in the garden.
Ideally the soil should be slightly acid [pH 5-6.0] and on the heavy side.
Nevertheless rhubarb does well pretty much anywhere. That is provided the soil doesn’t dry out and it has plenty of organic matter incorporated before planting.
But what rhubarb will not tolerate is waterlogged and poorly drained soil.
And that sunny position I mentioned earlier isn’t so important either! So if you have a shady end of your veg patch, this is a useful place to grow fresh rhubarb.
Let it settle in
Since this is a perennial vegetable it pays not to rush things along too much. Just let your plants get really settled in before either harvesting or forcing to get extra early crops.
With a likely useful life of at least 10 years and often three times this, rhubarb should be allowed time to really establish.
This means forsaking that rhubarb and custard for at least the first two springs after planting!
Forcing rhubarb at home
Of course, once established, rhubarb can be forced to get those really earliest tasty crops.
Forcing is done by feeding the roots well and partially excluding the light from the top.
Best results will be achieved by covering the roots in mid-winter with fresh manure containing lots of straw. And because the manure is fresh it will heat up as it rots down and this heat will force the new leaves to grow faster.
Rhubarb forcing pots
Now if you are fortunate, you may have an old terracotta rhubarb forcing pot complete with its lid.
These are bottomless, broad based and narrow towards the top.
Occasionally these can be bought at dispersal auctions but don’t expect them to be cheap! New ones can be bought for around £60-100 depending on how well fired the terracotta is.
This might expensive, and indeed you could buy a lot of rhubarb for that kind of money, but rhubarb forcing pots are also a very attractive addition to the garden, even if never used for forcing!
Whichford Pottery make some beautiful rhubarb forcing pots. Find out more here.
Now second hand chimney pots work just as well and these can be picked up from reclamation yards for considerably less than a new one. But don’t expect them to look as good as the real thing!
Varieties to grow
There are not many varieties to choose from and rhubarb has not been high on the plant breeders menu in recent years.
Nevertheless, some of the old varieties produce excellent results with Timperley Early and Victoria still perhaps the most widely planted.
There are several varieties that have nice sounding names which perhaps alludes to what one might add to the rhubarb to improve its rather sharp flavour.
These are the varieties ‘Strawberry’, ‘Raspberry Red’ and ‘Champagne’!
Are there any problems to watch our for?
Rhubarb suffers from few pests but snails will eat the poisonous leaves that they possess.
On no account try to eat the leaves yourself since it is only the stems that are edible.
In the past the leaves were steeped in water to create a solution It contained noxious substances from the leaves and was sprayed on other plants as a pesticide! I’m not recommending it and I shudder to think about the incredibly poisonous and dangerous substances that gardeners of old used!
Older plants may produce a tall and not unattractive flower stem of 1.5-2 m height. Spectacular though this may be it should be removed as soon as it is seen. If left to develop then the stem becomes hollow. This leaves a direct route for rainwater to penetrate and rot the centre of the rootstock.
Forcing an early crop
For the very earliest harvest, well established roots can be lifted in autumn. They are then left on the soil surface to receive the full force of frost and cold temperatures of early winter.
These chilled roots can then be coaxed into early growth inside. The chilling is necessary to break dormancy before the roots are packed shoulder to shoulder inside dark but warm sheds.
West Yorkshire’s 9 square mile Rhubarb Triangle [Wakefield-Morley-Rothwell] is considered to be the rhubarb forcing centre of the world. And probably the rhubarb centre of the Universe too!
This ancient practice still continues with only the light of candles. The candles are to see which stems are ready to harvest! Apparently, anything brighter will stop growth and retard this succulent early crop.
Another interesting feature of rhubarb forcing sheds is that you can actually hear the rhubarb stems growing!
Of course few, if any, of us will go to such lengths to force rhubarb. However a chimney or rhubarb forcer will produce excellent results. And it will help fill the late spring hungry gap year after year.