Rhubarb, sometimes referred to as pie plant, has a place in every self-reliant garden especially for us northern gardeners. This hardy perennial is a boon for any of us in cold climates as it’s one of the first things to revive in spring assuring us the long winter is finally over. We write about rhubarb for the self-reliant garden and how it figures into our plan to be as self-sufficient as possible in our book The Self-Sufficient Backyard: For the Independent Homesteader.
Why Grow Rhubarb
Historically rhubarb was one of many plants used as a spring tonic by early settlers. After a monotonous winter diet of dried beans, cured meats and whatever root vegetables could be stored, there’s no doubt the first rhubarb stalks were a welcome treat. As a source of various vitamins and minerals such as vitamin K, C, potassium and manganese, it’s use as a spring tonic shouldn’t be surprising since the winter fare, with its lack of variety had the potential to be nutritionally deficient over the long term. Rhubarb is also high in fiber making it a natural laxative to relieve constipation.
For us modern homesteaders, rhubarb is as relevant to sustainable living as it was generations ago. It’s certainly one of the first items the garden begins producing every spring helping to quell the craving for fresh edibles for those of us committed to eating with the seasons.
At only 26 calories per cup of sliced rhubarb, it’s naturally low in carbohydrates and calories. Unfortunately it’s quite tart and requires sugar, honey or other sweetener to be palatable. Pairing it with sweet fruit helps to add sweetness and counter it’s astringency. Strawberry rhubarb pie is an example of such a pairing.
Rhubarb is a sprawling plant so some would argue it takes up too much room for smaller gardens but I would counter with the fact that because it’s a dependable perennial that yields some of the first fresh eating of the season with very little effort from the gardener, this undemanding plant should be included in every self-reliant garden.
Rhubarb is easy to grow and is virtually maintenance free once established. Few insects and diseases bother it. Needing a chilling period in order to produce a crop, it grows best where the ground freezes in the winter thus making it a perfect addition to any northern garden. We can attest to its hardiness. It flourished in zone 0 of northern Saskatchewan where winter temperatures of -40F were common.
Rhubarb can be established using crowns purchased from nurseries, garden centers or seed catalogs. Or you can obtain a plant from a gardening neighbor or friend as every 3 to 4 years rhubarb needs to be dug up and divided. Division is usually done in early spring while the plant is dormant which fortunately coincides with the best time to plant it since it should be planted before it leafs out. However, as you keep reading, you’ll see we defied the rules.
The fall prior to our departure from Hockley Lake in Saskatchewan, just before the ground froze in early October, I dug up our rhubarb plants and stored several divisions that I’d hacked off in our root cellar. In March, when we loaded the bush plane with the last of our possessions and flew out of the bush for the final time, we hauled those rhubarb divisions with us. We drove them all the way across to the east coast of Nova Scotia where we stuck them in some buckets of soil to keep them alive until we could get them planted. That didn’t happen until late May when we stuck them in the ground in a temporary location where the soil was quite poor. One plant survived but barely. It hung on for 2 years until we finally got it planted in its permanent location.
To plant, choose a site that’s well drained to avoid the 1 problem that may plague the plant, crown rot. The site should be in full sun if possible and fertile as rhubarb is a heavy feeder. A slightly acidic soil is preferred. As long as the plant we hauled from the bush was in its temporary spot, it suffered from nutrient deficiencies as evidenced by discolored leaves and stunted growth. But once it was in its permanent location of rich, well prepared soil, it took off with a vengeance and I was able to make a small harvest that same year, a testament to how important soil fertility is.
Because rhubarb is a perennial, eliminate all weeds in your designated area before planting. Dig a hole roughly the size of a bushel basket. Mix in organic matter such as compost or well rotted manure, but don’t add any chemical fertilizer when you plant or you may kill the crown. Plant the crown about 4” deep.
To encourage earlier spring harvests, we created a little microclimate by surrounding the rhubarb bed with a semi circle of rocks that’s open to the south. The rocks absorb heat from the sun radiating it back to the growing area for earlier yields.
Very little care is required other than watering throughout the summer and keeping it weeded. If you mulch, this will keep weeds under control and keep moisture in the soil making for even less work. Avoid picking any stalks the first year, tempted though you may be, to allow the plant to get established.
The following spring, just before the ground thaws or right after, give the rhubarb some high nitrogen fertilizer. I use blood meal or composted manure but chemical fertilizer can be used too. You can begin picking stalks when they are about 12” long. To harvest, I twist the stalk to break it off and use a paring knife to carefully cut through any stubborn fibers. The idea is not to damage the crown by indiscriminately hacking away with a knife. Trim off the huge leaves and discard. Do Not Eat the Leaves! They are high in oxalic acid which is toxic if consumed but they make great additions to the compost pile. If a seed head appears, immediately remove it. You want the energy going to the plant itself not to flower and seed production.
Once a plant is 3 years old, its harvest period can run 8 to 10 weeks but the early stalks will be the most tender. When stalks become thin stop picking. Never pick all the stalks. Leave at least ½ of them to feed the plant.
Every 4 years or so you can and should divide your rhubarb by digging it up and whacking or pulling it apart along natural lines. You can replant the divisions if you want to enlarge your patch or give them away.
Rhubarb plants can last 20 years or more. We’ve seen many abandoned farmsteads with old rhubarb plants growing in the yard.
Botanically rhubarb is considered a vegetable, but it’s usually used as if it were a fruit and a versatile one at that since it can be used in breads, muffins, coffeecakes, pies, crisps, cobblers, cakes, smoothies and salads. It combines well with other fruits such as blueberries and strawberries in many of these concoctions. Poaching it with sugar and water then adding it to some homemade yogurt once cool makes for a yummy spring breakfast. It can be preserved as jams, conserves and juice, the juice being one of our favorite ways of utilizing it. It’s easily frozen for winter use by simply washing it, slicing it up and throwing it in a freezer bag.
Given the versatility of this undemanding but dependable perennial, we feel it should occupy a spot in everyone’s self-reliant garden.
Until next time, keep the dream alive! We wish you a great day!
Ron and Johanna
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