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View from the Garden: Grow Rhubarb for a Tasty Spring Treat

My favorite rhubarb sauce recipe:

Cut stalks into 1” pieces (discard leaves) and put into a saucepan with about ¾” of water and white raisins. Bring to a bubble and cook on very low heat until tender and beginning to break down. Remove from heat and add honey to taste. So delicious you will want to eat it every day!

When I was growing up, late spring and early summer meant rhubarb (or “pie plant” in Nebraska,where I am from). It was one of my favorite foods of this season, in addition to peas from the vine. Not everyone grew rhubarb, but those who did had so much that they begged others to take some. My mother was happy to help these ladies out and we had rhubarb every way possible—sauce every day, pie (not often enough), cobbler, jam and crumble.

She did not freeze it, though it freezes well. In fact, when I worked in a restaurant in the city years ago, every year I got a case of rhubarb from the produce supplier, cut it and put it into pie pans as if I was going to make a pie right then, and put it into the freezer. When I wanted to make a pie, I added sugar and cornstarch to the frozen pie and baked it. Wow, was that good in the winter….or any time.

Rhubarb is easy to grow and it is in the garden centers now. Be sure to choose a place where it can live for many years, as it can live to 20 years. I have read that it likes temperatures in the 40s in winter and no more than 75 in summer, but it thrived in Nebraska where the winter could be minus-something in winter and above 100 in summer.

Before planting, remove all perennial weeds. Rhubarb likes well-drained, rich soil and full sun. I usually do not amend soil when I plant but I would for rhubarb because it likes VERY rich soil. I’d add good compost (not all compost is so “good”) and some organic fertilizer. If you are not opposed to using manure, put some of that in there also. Be sure the manure is well composted. Plant the crowns no more than one to two inches below the surface of the soil. Water well and mulch. Keep it watered through the summer—it does not like drought. It does need fertilizing every year to keep it healthy.

Do not use a chemical fertilizer as it will burn the roots. Never use a chemical fertilizer on any plant—it kills the soil flora and fauna. My sister applies a very good layer of composted manure in the spring and has a bountiful harvest. You can do this in the fall to give the plant a good start for the next year.

Now you must wait and not harvest it until the second year, or even the third year, to allow the plants to become well established. Patience is a virtue that is so difficult to have in the garden! When the stalks are 12–18” tall, pull them from the bottom of the plant with a gentle twist. Restrain yourself and do not harvest more than half of any plant’s stalks. (You might need more than one plant!) Harvest lasts eight to 10 weeks. When the stalks start to become skinny, leave stalks to help the plant rejuvenate after being so generous with you.

Cut seed heads when they appear. The plants may need to be divided every few years—and then you have more plants!

Whatever you do, DON’T EAT THE LEAVES. THEY’RE POISONOUS!

Jeanelle Myers is a professional gardener, landscaper and consultant. For gardening discussion you can call her at 631-434-5067. jeanellemyersfinegardening.com

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