Many people know what pie plant is but you may or may not. If not, you might be interested to know that “pie plant” is the historical common name for rhubarb. You’ve either had rhubarb in a dish before, or that is an adventure yet to be experienced. If you’ve already tasted rhubarb, you’ve likely formed a strong opinion on it — it tends to have that effect on people. Either you have become a fan of it, or you might have written it off. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m a rhubarb proponent and I’ll tell you right now that the objective of this article is to expand the fan base of this great plant.
I know it’s a bold statement to say that something should be a part of every garden, but there are many reasons to incorporate rhubarb into your grounds and growing spaces. For starters, it’s just plain pretty to look at, so whether or not you plan to include it in your culinary efforts, it still is highly additive to your yardscape. Because it’s a sizable plant, it creates noticeable areas of deep green, with volume and color to contrast ornamental plantings you place around it.
I’ve said many times that I’m a big fan of perennials. Anytime you can do a moderate amount of soil preparation, place a plant, and have it return year after year, look great and not require much attention, that’s a big win. Rhubarb meets all those criteria and is a great food crop as well. It produces reliably and is easy to divide for more plantings around your place or as a give-away to a gardening friend.
While rhubarb appreciates well amended soil, it will do just fine here in northern Utah. The main soil characteristic it requires is that water must drain away. It likes to be kept moderately moist, which is easy to accomplish, once established, simply because it is largely self-shading. Every year, before buds appear on my plants, I throw some shovelfuls of compost on them as top dressing to give them a snack, condition the soil, and help suppress early weeds.
Watching an established plant awaken in the early spring is almost magical. The top dies back in late fall, and there is nothing left above the soil surface, nothing. It’s easy to think your plant has died. Highly unlikely. The plant has a robust perennial root system that hibernates for the winter. In the early spring, golf-ball size leaf buds push through the surface and sit waiting for sufficient sun and warmth. Once its internal clock alarm sounds, watch out. The buds erupt, leaves appear in a few days, and what was a bare patch of ground a week ago now has sizable plants actively growing.
A short time after, harvesting can begin. The edible part of the plant are the stalks which resemble celery. No more than two-thirds of the stalks should be harvested at any time, and for new plantings, harvesting shouldn’t be done until the third year. Don’t worry — the wait is worth it, as your plant will produce strong harvests for well over a decade. Harvest when the stalks are young and tender and before a significant amount of fiber has formed. If it’s stringy like mature celery, you’ve waited too long. To harvest, reach towards the bottom of stalks, grasp, and pull up and to the side slightly. The stalk will readily detach. Don’t cut the stalks from the plant as this will leave open wounds in the plant where rot can form. Once a stalk is detached, use a sharp knife to cut off the very bottom of the stalk, as well as the leaf. Don’t ingest the leaf, or allow livestock or pets to eat them. They contain a significant amount of oxalic acid — which is toxic. Fortunately, the leaves are very bitter, so they don’t usually attract animals that want to eat them. The stalks contain almost no oxalic acid. When processing a harvest of rhubarb, I discard the leaves by composting them. They quickly degrade and essentially “melt” into the pile while adding a nice amount of biomass. After handing the leaves, I always wash my hands just to be safe.
Rhubarb will bloom, but these should be removed. The flowers are not attractive, and they impede stalk production. Some rhubarb varieties bloom more than others. No matter how much your plant blooms, regularly remove the blooms and their stalks to help insure plant beauty and vigor.
Varieties that do well in our area include Chipman’s Canada Red, MacDonald and Crimson Red. Like anything, there are trade-offs. No single variety has the best flavor, color, vigor and size. Mine are Canada Red, and I’m quite happy with them. They produce a good quantity of stalks, have a moderately red stalk that holds color well during cooking, and have good flavor. They are very low maintenance and are sizable enough to be attractive in their own right, produce a good harvest multiple times during the season and respond to my many harvests by producing many more stalks for the next go around.
Whatever variety you plant, place your starts about three feet apart and make them accessible enough that you can get around the plant for easy harvesting. Starts and divisions are available in early spring. If you want the plants to be ornamental only, the stalks will harden up pretty quickly and stalk production will slow. The plant will do just fine and look good as long as you remove the bloom heads.
Assuming you want to prepare rhubarb dishes, a couple of popular choices are sauce (for ice cream, on toast, or on pound cake) or, in keeping with its long-term namesake, pie. Anyone that knows me also knows that I have a very well developed sweet tooth. This time of year, it’s hard to beat Strawberry-Rhubarb-Orange Rind pie. Like a good pie cherry, there is something especially delightful about the contrast of the tartness of rhubarb and the sweetness of the strawberry and sugars. Add a scoop of ice cream to a warm slice of pie, and you’ve got a recipe for some fantastic eating. My wife Maggie spoils me regularly with this incredible delicacy. If you’d like to see how she prepares it, visit our website at http://www.dirtfarmerjay.com/2013/07/making-a-strawberryorange-rhubarb-pie/. To see the rhubarb plants in my garden and how to harvest, watch my Growing and Harvesting Rhubarb video at http://www.dirtfarmerjay.com/2013/06/growing-and-harvesting-rhubarb/.
If you weren’t already a member, welcome to the Rhubarb Fan Club.
On another note, I know that we just completed the 2014 Garden Tour in June but it’s already time to start planning for next year and our main focus is finding tour homes for the 2015 show. If you, or anyone you know, have a yardscape that you think might qualify for the tour, please contact me. I and my committee members would like to see your yard and gardens now while they are in bloom rather than having to imagine what they might look like in March. And, while you’re at it, save the date for next year’s Tour. It will be held on Saturday, June 13th. Visit www.annualgardentour.info for more information.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at email@example.com, or you can visit his website at dirtfarmerjay.com for videos and articles on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.