A sure sign that spring is arriving is rhubarb starting to grow! Although it is technically a vegetable, it is used as a fruit since it is highly acidic which gives it the distinctive tart flavor. It is delicious combined with strawberries for a pie, made in bars or crisps, or a sauce poured over ice cream or cake.
According to our Iowa State University Extension Horticulturists, if you want to establish a rhubarb bed, early spring is the best time. Rhubarb plants can be purchased at garden center or if you are lucky enough to know someone dividing their plant, you can start your patch with that. Each division should contain at least two to three buds and a large piece of the root system. Replant in your own spot as soon as possible. Select a site that will receive at least 6 hours of direct sun each day. Plants prefer well-drained, fertile soils that are high in organic matter.
If you bed is newly planted patience is required since you should not harvest it until the second season to allow for good root development. During the third year, harvest for a four- week period. In the fourth and following years, rhubarb can be harvested for eight to ten weeks, ending in mid-June in Iowa and late June in Minnesota. It is a good idea not to remove more than one-half of the fully developed stalks from any plant at any one time. An old wives tail that we hear often from callers is that rhubarb is poisonous if eaten later in the summer. Rhubarb does not become poisonous, but harvesting later in the summer may weaken the plant and make it less productive the following year.
Spring weather can change quickly in the Midwest and fortunately, rhubarb is a sturdy plant that can withstand cold temperatures after it has started to grow. If a frost occurs, check your plant in a few days. If the leaves and the stalks are blackened and soft, remove them. Any new growth will be safe to eat. If the stalks do not show any sign of damage from the frost those stalks are safe to eat.
If your plant is producing more than you can use you might want to freeze some to enjoy later in the summer or next winter. Here are the directions to freeze yours successfully:
Preparation – Choose firm, tender, well-colored stalks with good flavor and few fibers. Wash, trim and cut into lengths to fit the package. Heating rhubarb in boiling water for 1 minute and cooling promptly in cold water helps retain color and flavor.
Dry Pack – Pack either raw or preheated rhubarb tightly into containers without sugar. Leave headspace. Seal and freeze.
Syrup Pack – Pack either raw or preheated rhubarb tightly into containers, cover with cold 40 percent syrup. Leave headspace. Seal and freeze.
Rhubarb is easy to grow and a treat to eat! If you would like more information on growing rhubarb, the University of Minnesota Extension has some very helpful tips on watering, controlling weeds and harvesting.