ARE YOU A FAN OF RHUBARB, TOO? I find this plant with tart, tender stalks is indispensable in the kitchen garden, for it rewards me with an extremely early spring harvest. (By “early,” I mean now, in mid-April). Rhubarb is easy enough to grow, providing you follow these planting and harvesting rules:
First, understand that rhubarb is a perennial performer, but only in zones where the ground freezes during winter. Or, at least, where temperatures dip to 40 degrees and lower. This cold period permits the plant to break dormancy. In warmer climates, rhubarb must be planted annually, if at all.
Planting begins with divided crowns, obtained in either spring or fall from the local nursery. Plant the crowns 3-4 feet apart, in a bed that has been loosened to a depth of 12 inches, and enriched with copious quantities of compost or well-aged manure. The ideal pH for rhubarb is 6.5 or 6. Plant deeply enough so that crowns, or buds, are covered with 2 inches of soil. Provide steady moisture the first summer, and be sure to mulch your plants with shredded leaves, salt-hay substitute, or composted wood chips. Rhubarb does best in a position that receives full sun.
Otherwise, refrain from harvesting petioles the first year. The second year you can harvest a few stalks, but not more than 1/3 of the plant. The third year, however, you can harvest freely, so long as a few leafy stems remain in order to nourish the plant. To harvest, cut stalks off at the base of the plant, or twist and pull them until they become detached from the crown.
As you harvest, keep in mind that only the stalks are edible; the leaves, which contain oxalic acid, are poisonous. I tear the leaves off immediately after plucking the stalks, and place them on the compost pile (leaves are perfectly safe for composting).
You may have heard that long, pink and red stems make the best eating. This is not true. Green stems, 10 inches in length, are utterly delicious. I enjoy the stems raw, dipped first in sugar to temper the tartness (sinful, perhaps, but a childhood habit encouraged by my mother in the 1960s), and also cooked in pies and crumbles.
Unless it is dipped in sugar, rhubarb is a very healthy food. One cup of raw, diced stem contains slightly more than 10% of the daily value for Vitamin C, 2 grams of fiber, and only 26 calories.
If you have any questions or comments concerning rhubarb, by all means post them below. And, I’d like to know your opinion: Is rhubarb pie better with or without the addition of strawberries? (I say without.)
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