How to Grow Rhubarb in Containers

The first time I ever tried rhubarb, it was a squishy mess inside a pie at a chain restaurant somewhere. I never wanted to eat it again.

That all changed the summer I moved to Alaska, when my parents convinced me to try the pie at a quaint local establishment, with the best view ever of the surrounding mountains and the Matanuska Glacier.

A vertical picture of a rhubarb plant growing in a small blue pot, with bright pink stalks and large leafy greens, to the left and the right are large terra cotta pots, pictured in bright sunshine. To the center and bottom of the frame is green and white text.

Because of the breathtaking view plus gasp-worthy pie combo, we visit as often as we can.

Now an enthusiastic rhubarb convert, the sweet, tart tang of the red-green stalks haunted my winter dreams and made me ache for summer. Even though all of my friends had pie-plant patches in their gardens, I still didn’t.

That’s when I realized that I needed to grow rhubarb in containers at home during the winter.

A close up of the light red stalks of the rhubarb plant, surrounded by light green foliage in soft focus in the background.

My state may freeze for over half the year, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get a head start on growing my favorite pie filling in the world.

And so can you! In this article, I’ll show you how.

Here’s what I’ll cover:

Why Grow Rhubarb in a Container?

A member of the Polygonaceae family, Rheum rhabarbarum produces red or reddish-green stalks from springtime to early or midsummer, depending on the variety.

While the leaves are inedible, or even toxic if consumed in large amounts, the stalks are deliciously edible.

A vertical picture of the reddish green stalks of the rhubarb plant growing in the garden with bright green leaves and a dark soft focus background.

Cooked down with buckets of sugar, they shine in a pie. That’s reason enough for me to want to grow a whole field of pie plant!

Growing rhubarb in containers is an easy way to have your own fresh harvest of stalks, even if you haven’t got much space in your garden.

Containers also help keep this plant in check. Once it’s established in your yard, rhubarb tends to take over, spreading so tall and wide – up to four feet both ways – that it can overshadow other crops growing in the area.

In southern climes – USDA Hardiness Zones 9 and above – rhubarb plants perish when temperatures rise in the summer, which is why it’s often grown as an annual in those locations.

A close up of a large rhubarb plant with large flat green leaves, growing in the garden in bright sunshine with a lawn in the background.

If it isn’t too hot out – meaning temperatures stay around or below 80°F throughout the hottest parts of the year – rhubarb thrives, and then naturally goes into dormancy during the late fall and into the winter months.

Rhubarb then needs to chill out at a temperature of between 28-49°F or below for at least six weeks.

This varies according the the cultivar you are growing, but on average, this plant needs 500 chill hours for best yields.

For those in Zones 7 or 8, the weather doesn’t always comply with this requirement.

Bringing your plant into a cool place like a basement or barn during these months will keep it happy during its winter rest period, allowing it to put all its energy into producing tasty new stalks come spring.

This is easy to do if you grow your plants in a container.

Choosing the Right Container

Are you planning to plant crowns, divisions, or bare roots in pots outdoors? Then you’ll need a container that’s at least 20 inches tall and wide.

It’s up to you whether you want to use a light plastic one, a more robust terra cotta variety, or something pretty and ornamental. Read more about what material is best for containers, pots, and planters here.

For starting seeds that you’ll later transplant to a larger outdoor container, select a pot that’s at least 8 inches wide and 7 inches deep.

A close up vertical picture of a small black plastic pot, containing dark, rich soil, with a small seedling just sprouting through the surface of the soil.
My three-week-old seedling in an 8-inch container. Photo by Laura Melchor.

This gives your plant plenty of room to grow and become established before transplanting time – without taking up scads of space in your house.

Alternatively, you can start seeds in trays and transplant the seedlings later.

Make sure you select a pot that has a draining dish, drainage holes that don’t leak onto your selected growing surface, or a self-watering insert.

You can also fill a regular pot with a layer of gravel at the bottom to promote drainage away from the root system.

Preparing Your Container

Fill your 20-by-20-inch container with either:

Use a good quality, organically rich potting soil that drains well. Rhubarb enjoys soil with a pH between 5.0 and 7.0, or lightly acidic to neutral.

If you’re using garden soil, you may need to amend it with compost or well-rotted manure. Conduct a soil test if you are unsure about the composition and pH level of your soil.

How to Grow

You can propagate rhubarb in four ways: from a crown (a one-year-old plant), a division, a dormant bare root ball, or seed.

We’ll discuss each method as it pertains to container growing so that you can make the best selection for your garden.

Planting a Crown

A rhubarb crown is a good way to start if you want stalks that are ready to harvest in the first season after you’ve planted it.

A close up top down picture of an immature rhubarb crown growing in a container with new leaves forming.

Make a four-inch-deep, six-inch-wide hole in the soil. Carefully remove your crown from its planter.

You may need to gently untangle the tendrils of the rhizome if the root ball seems very compacted.

Next, set the root ball in the hole, and backfill with soil. Don’t cover any part of the existing stalks or leaves with soil. All you need to do is make sure the root ball is covered.

A close up top down picture of a young rhubarb plant growing in the garden, with large, bright green flat leaves, and reddish stalks, surrounded by dark, rich, moist soil.

Give the plant a thorough soaking and set your container in a location that gets at least six hours of sun per day, preferably more. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy.

For crowns planted in the fall, reduce watering over the winter months, and increase again when you see the first signs of life in springtime. Then keep the soil evenly moist but not waterlogged through the growing season.

A close up of an immature rhubarb plant with new growth appearing in the springtime, surrounded by dark soil and fading to soft focus in the background.

If you have planted your crowns in the spring, get ready to watch them grow. As directed above, don’t overwater, but don’t let them dry out, either.

While you may be tempted to start snipping those tasty stalks off immediately, don’t!

Wait until stalks are 10-12 inches tall, and harvest lightly in the first season, taking only 1/8 to 1/4 of the plant’s total stalks.

This will allow your plant to establish the strong root system it needs to produce truly delicious stalks starting one year after planting.

Planting a Division

If a friend is kind enough to give you a division from her rhubarb plant, rejoice!

To divide them, you have to dig up the root and cut it in half (or into three pieces, depending on how large it is).

A vertical top down picture of a young rhubarb plant growing in a black plastic pot outdoors in the garden.

It is best to divide in spring, when the plant is first starting to wake up from its winter dormancy, or in the fall, just before it goes dormant.

See our full guide to dividing perennials for detailed instructions on how to do this.

Depending on the division time that you choose, the root balls (rhizomes) will be yellowish, chunky, tuberous things that may or may not have stalks and leaves attached.

A close up of recently planted rhubarb crowns sprouting new leaves in the springtime surrounded by rich soil and leaf mulch.

Plant each division in a hole about eight to ten inches deep, leaf side up. Cover all but the top inch of the root ball with soil, and leave any remaining stalks and leaves uncovered.

Water the division thoroughly, and find the container a sunny spot on your porch or deck.

If you’ve planted a rhizome that was divided in the fall, keep the soil moist until the plant goes fully dormant – in other words, until it dies all the way back.

For spring-planted divisions, keep them moist throughout the rest of the spring and summer, and watch those mature stalks pop up. (Yes, you can harvest them!) Spring-planted divisions will grow quickly and will be ready for harvest as soon as the stalks are 12-18 inches long.

For fall-planted divisions, you’ll be able to harvest stalks the following spring.

Planting a Dormant Bare Root Ball

A dormant bare root ball is essentially the same thing as a division. This is what the plant is called when you purchase it from a nursery, and it will generally include just one pale, dormant bud.

A close up of a rhubarb crown growing in the garden with small green leaves just starting to emerge in the springtime, surrounded by leaf mold.

Dig a hole eight to ten inches deep, depending on the size of your bare root.

Set the bare root inside, leaving the bud, exposed. Whatever you do, make sure to find the bud. It’s usually a very pale, one-inch-long bud near the top of the bare root.

The surest way to kill a bare root is to plant it root-side-up, bud-side-down.

A close up of small rhubarb foliage just emerging from the crown in the early spring, surrounded by mulched soil.

If you don’t see a bud anywhere, contact the seller and explain the situation. They may be able to help you find the bud, or send a replacement.

Water your newly planted root ball thoroughly, find it a sunny, warm location, and keep the soil moist. If you plant in the fall, there’s no need to water the bare root once temperatures drops consistently to 60°F or below.

The plant will stay comfortably dormant until springtime.

With springtime planting, leaves should emerge within two or three weeks. Don’t harvest during the first season.

A close up of small rhubarb seedlings growing in a black plastic or rubber pot, in dark moist earth, with grass in soft focus in the background.

Rhubarb planted from small bare roots needs time to establish a strong and healthy root system, giving you a better second-season yield and a hearty third-season yield, as well as high yields in the years to follow. Since these plants are very long-lived, they can keep producing for decades.

Sowing Seeds

Since Alaska – along with other northern states from Washington to Maine – are excellent locations for growing rhubarb, I decided to start my own from seed in late January.

A close up of a rustic clay bowl containing rhubarb seeds, dried and ready for planting, set on a wooden surface.

Rhubarb seeds are kind of funky looking, shrouded in a papery casing.

To speed up germination, soaking the seeds in tepid water for at least two hours before sowing is recommended, to loosen the casing around the seeds.

A close up of two black plastic pots containing rich dark soil, with granular fertilizer on the top, set on a plastic surface, ready for planting seedlings.
Photo by Laura Melchor

Typically, you’ll start seeds indoors about three months before your area’s average last frost date.

I chose to start my seeds in neat little starter trays, which you can find on Amazon. There are six cells per tray, and ten of everything comes with your purchase: ten trays, ten bases, ten “roofs” with 10 humidity adjustment knobs, and 10+ labels.

Seed Starting Trays

To sow, make a one-inch-deep hole about the size of your fingertip, and drop one seed into each cell.

Lightly cover each seed with soil, and give them a gentle but thorough watering.

A close up of a green seedling tray with small seeds planted in each section.
Photo by Laura Melchor

Germination can take anywhere from seven days to two weeks.

After three weeks, I transplanted my baby seedlings into my eight-inch-wide, seven-inch-deep pots, prepared as described above with potting soil and a little granular fertilizer.

Place them in an area that gets at least 6 hours of sunlight per day (or use a grow light), and maintain even moisture, but don’t let them get waterlogged. As the rhubarb grows, you’ll notice more leaves developing on the stems.

A close up of a black plastic pot set on a windowsill containing a three week old rhubarb seedling, with three leaves, surrounded by dark, rich soil.
Photo by Laura Melchor

In spring, when all risk of frost has passed and the seedlings are four to six inches tall, your plants will be ready for hardening off and moving outdoors in a larger container.

To harden them off, place the pots in a partly sunny area protected from wind, rain, and excessive sunshine, starting with two hours of outdoor exposure a day.

A close up of a small black plastic pot with a six-month-old rhubarb plant started from seed, set on a wooden surface, with a garden scene in soft focus in the background.
Photo by Laura Melchor.

Over the space of a week, gradually increase their outdoor playtime to eight hours, and then they will be ready to grow outdoors full-time.

And voila! Your pie plant is on its way to becoming a one-year-old crown. Next summer, you’ll get to enjoy stalks from your very own seed-grown rhubarb.

Container Care

Once established, rhubarb is easy to care for. Always keep in mind that it grows best in a sunny spot with evenly moist soil.

When growing it in containers, remember that the soil can dry out more quickly than it would in the garden. Keep an eye out for dehydration, especially during periods of hot weather. If you haven’t had sufficient rain, you may need to provide extra irrigation.

A close up of a young rhubarb plant with bright green leaf tops and dark reddish pink stems, surrounded by dark, rich, moist soil fading to soft focus in the background.

Mulching with shredded bark, wood chips, or compost can help the soil to retain moisture, just be sure not to let the mulch touch the crowns – keep it about an inch away from the stems of your plants.

In the late fall, after harvest, the plant will die back and go dormant for the winter. As mentioned above, it needs a winter chilling period of about six weeks with temperatures between 28 and 49°F.

Come spring, when you see the first signs of new growth, fertilize with a balanced 10-10-10 (NPK) granular fertilizer. Note that this may not be necessary if you are mulching with compost, as it will gradually break down and provide extra nutrients to the soil.

Dividing Larger Plants

You won’t need to worry about this for about three or four years, but once your plants start to look too big for their containers, it’s time for some division.

Wait until late fall or early spring to do this – when the plant is either about to go dormant for the winter, or when it’s just waking up in springtime.

With a trowel or hand rake, scrape at the outside of the root until you can reach down and pull it out with two hands. Take a flat spade in two hands and hit the root with it, slicing the tuberous yellow chunk straight down the middle, or use a garden knife.

Depending on how large the root is, and how many buds it has, you may want to slice it again crosswise so that you have four chunks instead of two. Each division should have 1-3 buds.

(Yes, your plant will survive this. It’s very hardy!)

Replant the chunks with the stalk (bud) sides up, douse them with water, and watch them pop up and sprout new stalks in the spring.

Growing Tips

  • When planting crowns, bare roots, or divisions, plant directly into a 20-by-20-inch container
  • Keep your plants moist but not waterlogged until they die back in the fall
  • Provide at least six hours of sunlight per day
  • Divide plants every three to four years for the best yields

Cultivars to Select

You can grow just about any cultivar in a container, but some varieties are smaller than others, making them better suited to growing in a smaller space.

Here are a couple of the more popular cultivars suitable for your container garden. See our guide to the best rhubarb cultivars for a full selection of what’s available.

Glaskin’s Perpetual

This variety is perfect for container growing because it’s a bit smaller than other cultivars, growing just two feet wide and tall.

Plus, you can harvest it from spring all the way until late summer. And you can being to harvest ‘Glaskin’s Perpetual’ just one year after planting from seed!

‘Glaskin’s Perpetual’

Sweet, tart, and a bit less bitter than some other varieties, the reddish-green stalks will be harvest-ready when they’re 12-14 inches long.

Find packs of 500 or 1,000 seeds from Outsidepride via Amazon.

Victoria

Sweet and just tart enough to please most rhubarb-lovers, ‘Victoria’ is a cultivar that gardeners have favored since it became the first widely popular pie plant cultivar in the mid-1800s.

This one is well suited to container growing because it reaches just three feet wide by three feet tall at maturity. While this may sound huge, it’s smaller than other cultivars!

‘Victoria’ Seeds

‘Victoria’ is the type that I’ve been growing in my containers, and it’s an excellent cultivar to start from seed. Find packets of 50 seeds from Everwilde Farms via Amazon, like I did.

A close up of the 'Victoria' variety of rhubarb plant growing in the garden with large flat green leaves and reddish brown stalks, growing amongst other plantings in the garden.

‘Victoria’ Plants or Bare Roots

If you want to get a head start on the growing season, you can also buy live plants or bare roots to start your crop, available at Burpee.

Managing Pests and Disease

Rhubarb is impressively pest resistant, and if you’re growing it containers, you won’t have as many (if any) weeds or pests to worry about.

A close up of a small black plastic pot set on a wooden deck, containing a rhubarb plant, with a garden scene in soft focus in the background.
Photo by Laura Melchor.

But keep an eye out for fungal leaf rot, which can happen if the leaves stay damp or damply hug other surrounding leaves for too long. An easy way to avoid this is to water at the base of the plant, avoiding the leaves entirely. Remove any dead or dying leafy growth throughout the season, to promote good airflow.

If you do find fungus, remove the infected leaf and stalk. You can still use the stalk in your cooking if you cut the affected parts away, and removing the leaf will help to keep the infection from spreading to the rest of the plant.

So, what’s the number one pest to watch out for?

The rhubarb weevil, a yellowish, long-snouted, half-inch-long beetle that carves notches out of your beautiful stems and leaves.

A close up of an odd looking insect, with an orange fuzzy appearance, and a long nose, set on a bright green leaf on a dark soft focus background.

Scrape the weevils off the plant if you spot them, and kill them so that they don’t come back.

It’s important to catch them early, before they start laying eggs and multiplying at rates that are hard to keep up with.

Harvesting

To harvest your stalks, wait until the second season of growth. This is going to be the hardest part of growing your own, especially when your taste buds crave pie!

Most varieties will be ready for harvest from late April through June.

When the stalks are 12-18 inches in length, harvest the outer stalks by finding the base with your fingers and pulling firmly to break them off one at a time. Each stalk should detach pretty easily from the base, with a tapered end.

A close up vertical picture of freshly harvested rhubarb stalks with the foliage still attached, set in a metal tin with a little water, on a wooden surface.

Cut the leaves off and whisk them off to your compost container.

Remember, they’re inedible and even potentially harmful due to the high levels of oxalic acid they contain, so you don’t want children or pets munching on them.

During your plant’s first harvest, take only about a quarter of the total stalks. The following year, you can take all but one-third.

A close up of new growth on a rhubarb stalk that has been cut back for harvest, surrounded by mature stalks and foliage and fading to soft focus in the background.

By leaving a few stalks behind, you allow the plant to store energy for the winter dormancy period, and the reawakening to follow in the springtime.

If you live in Zones 7 or above, move your container to a cool, sheltered space – a basement, garage, or even an outdoor freezer – once it gets too hot, with temperatures consistently above 80°F.

It’s ideal if this space gets down to 40°F during the winter so your plant could also stay there through the necessary chilling period. Alternatively, you can move it back outside after the heat of summer has passed.

A close up vertical picture of a rhubarb plant in a black pot, after harvest or division, surrounded by dark, rich moist soil with grass in the background.

If you are growing your plant as an annual, harvest every single stalk off your pie plant when they’re ready, watch the remaining above ground portions of the plant shrivel in the heat – or simply dig it up and dispose of it – and replant a new division or crown in fall or the following spring.

Those in Zones 3-6 can leave the containers outside to happily overwinter in the cold.

Need more harvesting tips and tricks? We have a guide for that!

Recipes and Cooking Ideas

For use throughout the winter, cut clean stalks into one-inch pieces, lay them on parchment paper, and freeze until they are firm. Then transfer them to gallon-size freezer bags, making sure to mark them with the date you put them in the freezer. They’ll keep for up to a year.

Alternatively, you can make a delicious pie, like this one from our sister site, Foodal.

A close up of a freshly baked strawberry and rhubarb pie with a lattice pastry topping in an orange bowl set on a marble surface.
Photo by Meghan Yager

Try your hand at making a rhubarb jam or sauce, perfect for drizzling over or stirring into your ice cream. Maybe bake a crumble or spelt cake such as this one, also from Foodal.

A close up of a slice of spelt and rhubarb cake, set on a white plate with a fork next to it, set on a white surface, fading to soft focus in the background.
Photo by Meghan Yager

Wondering what else pie plant pairs well with? There are plenty of things that aren’t pie. For a full list of pairable foods, check out this article on using rhubarb in the kitchen, from Foodal.

The available options are endlessly tart and tasty.

Tart, Juicy Goodness Awaits You

By growing rhubarb in a container, you have more control over its growing conditions. And it makes a project for the kids to get involved in too.

I’ll be sitting here hovering over my six little plants for the next two years, just waiting until the gorgeous day when I can harvest them for the first time.

A small rustic wooden table with three pots containing maturing rhubarb plants with pink stems and bright green foliage, pictured in bright sunshine with a garden scene in soft focus in the background.

Until then, I’ll be making plenty of pie stops at Long Rifle Lodge, just off Mile 102 on the Glenn Highway in Chickaloon, Alaska (in case you ever visit!).

What’s your favorite rhubarb treat? Let us know in the comments!

And don’t forget to check out our other guides to growing veggies in containers next:


Don’t forget to Pin It!

A collage of photos showing different views of rhubarb growing in various pots and containers.

Photos by Laura Melchor and Meghan Yager © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published on February 27, 2020. Last updated: July 5, 2020 at 18:11 pm. Product photos via Burpee, Everwilde Farm, Outsidepride, and Stock your Home. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock. With additional writing and editing by Clare Groom and Allison Sidhu.

About Laura Melchor

Laura Melchor grew up helping her mom in the garden in Montana, and as an adult she’s brought her cold-weather gardening skills with her to her home in Alaska. She’s especially proud of the flowerbeds she and her three-year-old son built with rocks dug up from their little Alaska homestead. As a freelance writer, she contributes to several websites and blogs across the web. Laura also writes novels and holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Titania
Titania (@guest_7095)
6 months ago

As long ago as the early 1930s, there was a large local rhubarb farm in the very fertile Fairview-Knik area near Wasilla. The location was Mile 3.1 Fairview Loop Road, near present-day Alder Lane. In the 1960s, the field was torn up and converted to timothy hay, but a few rhubarb plants were left near the old log cabin, to supply the household. I harvested those naturalized plants in the 1980s, to make pies and crumbles and preserves. The rhubarb went very well with the “MataRed” and “Susitna” strawberries from the very popular pick-your-own farm in the Butte area. Those… Read more »