When and How to Harvest Rhubarb

Growing rhubarb, Rheum rhabarbarum, is not for those who lack patience.

Compared to something like a carrot, which you can enjoy just 60 to 75 days after planting, pie plant takes months. Often one year. Sometimes two or three.

But oh, when you finally bite into that heavenly slice of rhubarb pie, crisp, or crumble, the wait will have been beyond worthwhile.

This means that if you haven’t ever grown rhubarb before, you should start now. Check out our complete guide to growing rhubarb to get started.

A close up of a hand from the left of the frame grasping a ripe stalk of a rhubarb plant ready for harvest. To the top and bottom of the frame is green and white text.

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While you eagerly wait for your stalks, or petioles, to grow large enough for picking, let’s learn all about when and how to harvest rhubarb.

Here’s what I’ll cover:

When to Harvest Rhubarb

There are many ways to plant: from seed, crown, bare root, or division. And you if you don’t have space in your garden, you can always grow rhubarb in containers.

We cover this in more detail in our guide to rhubarb varieties. But each planting method has different harvest specifications, so let’s find out what that’s all about.

From Divisions: The Quickest Way to Home-Grown Stalks

Divisions are taken from rhubarb plants that are either about to go dormant for the winter, or about to leave the days of dormancy behind.

If you’re lucky enough to score a division from a friend, you’ll get to enjoy your own tart stalks come springtime.

A close up vertical picture of a rhubarb crown growing in the garden in springtime, on a soft focus background.

This is because divisions are already mature plants that will produce stalks easily. The yield depends on how large the root section is.

(Hint: the larger it is, the more pie plant stalks you’ll get to harvest!)

So don’t be shy. Ask your rhubarb-laden gardening friends if you can take a nice chunk home to your own garden.

A gardener wearing dark green boots stands in the vegetable garden holding a bunch of freshly harvested red, ripe rhubarb stalks, in bright sunshine, fading to soft focus in the background.

You’ll know stalks are mature when they’re at least 12 inches long. Don’t worry about the color: a green stalk does not mean the plant isn’t ready.

It simply means you chose a green-stalked variety, like ‘Victoria’ often is, or ‘Riverside Giant.’

So all you need to know for now is this:

  • When planting from divisions, you can harvest stalks the first season

Bare Root: The Second-Fastest Way

A bare root is basically a dormant division purchased from a nursery and it’s usually a lot smaller than a division you’d get from a friend.

For this reason, it’s best to leave bare roots alone during their first season after you plant them. They’ll produce stalks, but the plants are small and often a lot younger than the massive spread in your friend’s garden.

You can begin to lightly pick rhubarb planted from bare roots in the second season, and pick regularly the third season after.

To make it easy to remember, here’s the key point:

  • Bare root rhubarb should be left alone the first season after planting, lightly harvested the second, and harvested normally from the third season

From a Crown: Also the Second-Fastest Way

A crown is a small plant that’s at least a year old. You’ll often find these in your local nursery, chilling out in the planters where they were born, ready for transplant into your garden.

A close up of a young Rheum rhabarbarum plant growing in a wooden raised garden bed in bright sunshine on a soft focus background.

While you can technically tug one or two slim, short stalks from your plant the day you bring it home, it’s best to leave it alone for a full year after planting.

This gives it the time to get established.

In the second season after you plant it, go ahead and take 1/4 to 1/3 of the stalks if your plant looks robust. By the third season, you’ll be able to pick 1/2 to 3/4 of the tasty petioles.

To sum it up…

  • Crowns are potted plants that are at least a year old. Harvest lightly in the second season after planting, and regularly in the third.

Sowing Seeds: The Slowest Way

It may be two to three years before you get to pick rhubarb planted from seed, but don’t knock this method completely because it is fun.

Here in Alaska, I’m used to seeing huge clumps of rhubarb all over the place come summertime.

But when I start pie plant from seed, I get to watch the transformation from papery seed, like this:

A close up of a hand holding small seeds of the rhubarb plant encased in a papery shell on a soft focus background.
Photo by Laura Melchor

To four-week-old seedling, like this, and beyond:

A close up of a small seedling growing in a black pot in rich dark soil on a green soft focus background.
Photo by Laura Melchor

Isn’t it miraculous that this tiny plant grows up to four feet tall and wide, depending on the variety? That the humble stalks become the dazzling star of so many sweet dishes?

Call me strange, but I feel a bond with these little plants. I’ve known them for so long, and once they’re planted against my red barn, I’ll smile and remember when I held them in my palm in seed form.

Think of planting from seed like planting from a crown but with an extra year or so tacked on. You’ll need to wait until the seedlings become crowns, and then another year until the crowns produce big enough stems for very light picking (1/4 or less of the plant).

By the third year, you can take 1/3 to 1/2 of the stalks. By the fourth, you’ll be able to take a regular picking of 1/2 to 3/4 of the total petioles.

For a quick recap, seed-sown rhubarb needs:

  • Two years from germination until you can pick very lightly; three years for a light harvest; four years for a normal harvest.

What Time of Year to Harvest

No matter which planting method you choose, the actual months of harvest season remain the same.

It all depends on your USDA Hardiness Zone.

In the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and the Midwest –ƒ Zones 2-6 – you can typically pick rhubarb all the way from April to early July.

Take the first harvest when stalks mature in April, leaving 1/2 to 3/4 of the petioles intact.

A close up of two hands from the left of the frame carefully picking ripe stalks from a rhubarb plant in light sunshine on a soft focus background.

After another month or two, new petioles should have grown to replace the ones you harvested. Again, take 1/2 to 1/4 of the petioles, leaving the rest.

For the rest of the summer, allow the plant to grow untouched. This will help it store up nutrients for winter sustenance, ensuring that you get a healthy crop the following spring.

A close up of the large green leaves of a mature Rheum rhabarbarum growing in the garden, pictured in light sunshine.

In Zones 7 and 8, winters are milder. You’ll be able to get your plants in the ground sooner, and they’ll mature more quickly.

Pick from March through May in these Zones, leaving the plants alone in their hopefully semi-shaded area to weather out the rest of the summer and store energy for the winter.

A close up of a hand from the right of the frame picking a fresh stalk from a Rheum rhabarbarum plant, on a soft focus background.

Picking time is even earlier if you’re growing rhubarb as an annual in Zones 9 or above.

You’ll have sown seeds indoors in August and planted them (or potted crowns) outside by October. In this case, you can pick them from about February to April.

Take just 1/4 of the stalks earlier in the season, leaving the rest behind to get stronger and bigger. But in April, go ahead and harvest every single stalk.

After April, your plants will probably perish in the summer heat. And you’ll start the process all over again in August.

Same thing goes for those who plant divisions or bare roots, although this can be problematic in warm climates as root rot easily takes hold of the plants if the soil becomes too hot.

To sum up harvest times by Zone:

  • Zones 2-6: Harvest from April to early July
  • Zones 7 and 8: Harvest from March to May
  • Zones 9 and Up: Harvest from February to April

Best Time of Day to Harvest

I have visions of heading out to my cool, early-summer garden in the morning and plucking stalks for my breakfast crumble.

A close up top down picture of four white ceramic bowls containing a breakfast crumble made from freshly harvested rhubarb, to the right of the frame is a spoon and to the left are some fresh red stalks. The background is a rustic wooden surface.

Or weaving my hand through the plant to find the juiciest petioles in the evening for a spur-of-the-moment pie.

But the truth is, you can pick rhubarb at any time of the day.

A close up top down picture of a freshly baked pie to the right of the frame in a black baking dish, with a black plate containing one slice with a spoon next to it, set on a dark gray slate background.

It may prefer being plucked away from its mother plant in the cooler hours of the morning or evening, but stalks won’t lose their crispness if you pick them in the heat of the day – as long as you bring them indoors right away.

Knowing When Stalks Are Ready

Still worried about how to know when stalks are ripe and ready?

All you need to remember is that they should be at least 12 inches long. It’s also nice for your plant if you wait until there are about 10 stalks on a plant, so that when you harvest about 1/4 to 1/2, at least 5 to 7 stalks remain.

A close up of a young Rheum rhabarbarum plant growing in rich soil in the garden, with bright green leaves and ripe red stalks.

Here’s the rule to follow: if your plant has fewer than 10 petioles but they are all ripe, harvest no more than two to four.

It helps if you have several plants from which to take one or two stalks apiece, leaving the rest to grow for a while longer before you collect again later in the season.

How to Harvest

The only tools you need are your own two hands. While you can technically use a garden knife, stalks are often so close together that you might accidentally slice into a petiole you didn’t mean to nick.

A vertical picture of a woman holding a garden knife cutting a red, ripe stalk from a Rheum rhabarbarum plant in bright sunshine.

If you do choose to use a knife, find the bottom of the petiole with your hand, pull it away from the other stalks, and gently cut downward.

Or, take the easier and safer route of simply gripping the middle of the stalk with both hands and then twisting and pulling at the same time.

The end of the stalk will have a tapered, papery portion.

A close up of a hand from the left of the frame cutting the end off a freshly harvested bright red rhubarb stalk in light sunshine, on a soft focus background.

Go ahead and cut that off.

A close up vertical picture of a hand grasping a bunch of freshly harvested rhubarb stalks, and with the other hand, holding a knife to cut off the leafy green foliage, on a soft focus green background.

While you’re at it, snip the leaves off, too, and take them to your compost pile – or the garbage.

Just make sure they stay out of reach of children and animals, as the leaves are toxic.

Preserving Stalks

By the time three or four years have passed since you first planted rhubarb, you’ll have so much that you probably won’t be able to use it all at once.

A vertical picture of freshly harvested Rheum rhabarbarum stalks, the stems are bright red and the leafy green foliage still attached, set on a rustic wooden surface.

Freshly picked rhubarb will stay fresh in the refrigerator for about a week as long as it’s kept in a zip top bag or other airtight container. If you just stick it in the fridge as is, it’ll dry out.

To keep rhubarb around even longer, freeze it!

A close up of a ceramic bowl containing chopped, one inch portions of frozen rhubarb stems, set on a rustic woven cloth with a basket in the background and herbs in soft focus.

All you have to do is slice the stalks into one-inch pieces, set them on parchment paper, and place them in the freezer until they’re firm.

Then move them to date-marked freezer bags, where they’ll keep in your freezer for up to a year.

What To Do If Rhubarb Bolts

You can usually catch seed heads before they turn into full-on flowers. They’ll usually emerge from the base of the plant, green and bulbous.

The stalks that seed heads grow on are usually tougher than edible stems, so you’ll need to take a sharp knife and cut them as close to the base of the plant as possible.

A close up of a small Rheum rhabarbarum plant with a seed head developing pictured in bright sunshine and fading to soft focus in the background.

This is the case whether you catch the seed head in its early stages or you end up needing to remove a tall stalk with several seed heads.

A close up vertical picture of a seed head of a Rheum rhabarbarum plant showing the large bulbous head growing on a tall stalk. The background is a garden scene in soft focus.

If you let your plant go to flower, the edible stems will taste the same and your plant will still live for many more years.

But since all the energy is poured into creating seeds, you won’t get to pick nearly as many stalks.

Now Go Make Some Rhubarbalicious Treats!

Now that you know how to pick pie plant, it’s time to plan those pies. And wines. And crumbles, cakes, jams, and ice creams.

And if you need further inspiration, our sister site, Foodal, has plenty of ideas for what to do with your fresh harvest.

We’d love to know: what’s your favorite rhubarb treat? Mine, of course, is pie. But when my seedlings turn into big strong plants and I get to harvest homegrown stalks, you bet I’ll be trying every recipe I can find.

A close up of two hands holding a bunch of freshly picked Rheum rhabarbarum stalks, some of them are green and others light red, on a soft focus background.

Let us know in the comments if you have any extra harvesting tips we should know about, and what you plan to do with your freshly harvested pie stalks!

If you’re thinking about adding more vegetables to your garden you’ll need these guides next:

Photo of author
Laura Ojeda 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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Val (@guest_8026)
4 years ago

The bottom part of the stalk that you say to cut off is the tenderest, sweetest part of the whole stalk. Trim it, sure, but don’t waste it!

Laura Melchor
Laura Melchor (@guest_8505)
Reply to  Val
3 years ago

Hi Val. Thank you for the tip! I’ll save those next time and see what they’re all about. 🙂

Teresa Edwards
Teresa Edwards (@guest_9815)
3 years ago

My rhubarb is still growing and looks healthy in Sept in Seattle Wa. Is it going to taste okay if I bake with it or freeze for later?

Laura Melchor
Laura Melchor (@guest_9820)
Reply to  Teresa Edwards
3 years ago

Hi Teresa! Yes, definitely. You can bake with some of the larger stalks now, and harvest it all before your area’s average first freeze. Cut it into baking-sized pieces and freeze it for those December pie cravings. Here in Alaska, there’s a local restaurant that grows its own rhubarb in the summer, but serves rhubarb pie year-round. They freeze theirs and use the frozen pieces to make a delicious pie filling.