Rhubarb is one of the hardier crops, tolerant of cold, frost and wind. It is one of those staple crops you can plant, fertilise, water and walk away from once it’s established. Aesthetically, it adds colour and texture to the garden. When planting rhubarb remember that rhubarb leaves are poisonous and that only the stem can be cooked and used.
Rhubarb is sometimes considered a fruit, because it is generally eaten with sweet dishes. Technically, however, it’s a vegetable, and hence it appears in vegetable patches and plots around the country.
Choose a variety - top picks
- Glaskin’s Perpetual: an early variety with slim, bright red stems that is quick to establish from seed.
- Victoria: the most popular variety of rhubarb, it has a chunky, more compact habit with upright red and green stems.
- Ruby Tart: strong growing with ruby red stems and a superior taste.
- Winter Harvest: produces juicy, sweet, bright red stalks.
There are red and green varieties of rhubarb available, green stems are normal for green varieties.
Rhubarb enjoys fertile, well-drained soil in full sun and dislikes having wet feet. It doesn’t like sandy soils unless plenty of organic matter has been dug in.
Rhubarb is also happy growing in large pots and containers, making it an ideal portable crop. Fill pots and containers with Tui Vegetable Mix.
Rhubarb can also be grown from seed, by dividing existing clumps or purchasing a plant from the garden centre.
Plants sown from seed take a few years to establish themselves. Sow seed in trays of Tui Seed Raising Mix in spring, and transfer into pots to grow once a few sets of leaves appear. Plant out 1m apart in the garden once seedlings are at least 10cm tall and look robust.
When dividing existing clumps the quickest way is to split pieces off an existing plant in spring, autumn or winter. To do this, slice through the crown of the plant with a sharp spade or long knife. Plant the whole section in the ground or in a pot (that is bigger than the offcut). Once the plant begins to put down roots, new leaves will appear.
Feed your plants and they will feed you. To promote the growth of more stems, keep plants well watered through dry periods. However, don’t panic if plants get dry, as they will bounce back once watered.
Feed with a general fertiliser such as Tui General Fertiliser or Tui Blood & Bone during the key growth periods of spring and autumn. Keeping it well nourished and watered will help keep insect pests at bay.
Harvest and storage
Pick rhubarb when the stalks are thick enough. Avoid leaving them too long as the larger stalks can sometimes taste bitter and come woody. When harvesting, firmly grasp a stalk close to the ground. Twist and pull the stalk – it should break free of the plant. Do this carefully as you don’t want to break off new shoots while you are picking your crop. If you can’t twist the stems off easily, cut them as close to the base of the plant as possible.
Rhubarb stems will store in the fridge for a week or so. They can also be frozen for up to three months once cut into 5-10cm lengths.
- Soak rhubarb seedlings in Tui Organic Seaweed Plant Tonic before planting to help avoid transplant shock and apply every four weeks to promote strong root growth.
- As rhubarb like nitrogen rich soil, another way to feed your rhubarb is to place sheep pellets and water in a muslin cloth or old stocking and pour over your plants.
- Keep the area around the plants weed free. Watch out for slugs and snails, which can quickly shred the lush leaves of your rhubarb. Lay Tui Quash slug & snail control to protect your plants.
Information extracted from the Tui NZ Vegetable Garden Book, 3rd Edition, By Rachel Vogan.