A Tart Addition to the Garden: Grow Rhubarb for Spring Flavor

Rheum rhabarbarum

I have faint memories of a neighbor woman down the street from our house in Northern California sharing great bundles of homegrown rhubarb with our family when I was quite wee.

Top down view of freshly harvest rhubarb stalks in a wicker basket.

That was approximately 300 years ago, and I don’t think I’ve heard much about rhubarb since.

I suppose smarter people than I have expounded on why this sour vegetable has fallen out of favor, but if I were to hazard a guess, I might lay the demise of its popularity at the feet of our sweet-obsessed culture.

Rhubarb, whose edible stalks sort of look like rosy celery, is tart. Extraordinarily tart. Think Granny Smith apple times 100.

This vegetable/fruit (hang on – we’ll explain in a minute) is almost never eaten raw. It’s often baked into a pie or cobbler with something close to five pounds of sugar.

Vertical image of a small rhubarb plant with skinny pink and yellow stems and large green leaves, growing against a beige stucco wall in brown soil topped with leaves and wood chip mulch.
Photo by Gretchen Heber.

Okay, just kidding, but you get the point.

The truth is, those who aren’t in the known about this stalky homegrown treat are missing out. And you, too, can grow it in your own garden.

Let’s take a look at the best methods to grow it, and some delicious culinary suggestions for getting the most out of your harvest.

Here’s what’s to come:

But first, back to that fruit or vegetable thing…

Fruit, Vegetable, Fregetable?

Botanically a vegetable, rhubarb is often referred to as a fruit because, culinarily, that’s how we use it.

Apparently, the US Customs Office even legally declared rhubarb a fruit in the 1940s — something to do with import taxes and that’s basically how it was used in cooking anyway. But again, technically it’s a vegetable.

Whatever you call it, here’s an important factoid we want to get out there before we get too far into this guide:

This plant’s leaves are poisonous. Way poisonous. So don’t eat them.

Closeup of a rhubarb plant shot from below, angled up towards skinny pink stems and large green leaves, with a bright white sky in the background and brown soil at the base of the stalks.

As soon as you harvest the stalks, cut the leaves off and throw them away where neither human nor beast can get to them.

The root and rhizome of the plant are okay to ingest, however, and have been used as a medicinal plant in Asia — where it is native — for around 5,000 years, if not longer.

In fact, modern natural-medicine adherents around the world sometimes use rhubarb to address digestive issues such as constipation, diarrhea, and heartburn. Rhubarb is also used by some to treat cold sores.

Plant a Pie

Hardy and treated as a perennial in zones 3-8, gardeners in southern zones sometimes have luck growing R. rhabarbarum as an annual, though our brutal heat can make it tough to get a harvest in before the plants burn up.

Rhubarb, aka “pie plant,” also needs extended temperatures below 40°F during the cold season, which some Southern zones just don’t get.

Closeup of a pink rhubarb bud just starting to open, with pink and white cauliflower-like flowers, against a green background.

Though it won’t typically survive multiple seasons in southern climes, it can be grown as a winter annual in the south. Be sure to give plants extra protection from the summer sun in these areas, and plant in an section of the garden with afternoon shade.

This plant grows to 2 to 3 feet tall and spreads 3 to 4 feet. On up to 5-foot stalks, the plant produces flowers that, in their nascent stage, resemble pink-tinged cauliflower. They gradually unfurl into great clouds of white.

Vertical image of a fluffy rhubarb flower, green-white and reminiscent of cauliflower or astilbe.

While it is generally recommended to cut off flower buds to increase stalk production, some gardeners opt to allow the flowers to bloom, for beauty’s sake or to eat, as the flowers are edible, too.

Plants or Heirloom Seeds (And Where to Buy)

If you want to add R. rhabarbarum to your garden, your best bet is to “borrow” a crown from a neighbor, or purchase a small plant.

Since plant division is typically not an option in hotter regions where rhubarb cannot be grown as a perennial, it must be grown from seed in these USDA Hardiness Zones.

Don’t be concerned if the resulting stalks are more green than red – even though this plant is a bit like apples and other food crops that don’t grow true to the original cultivar from seed, they’ll still be delicious.

Extra-large ‘Crimson Red’ roots are available from Burpee. With plump, tender, sweet and tart stalks that max out at 24 to 36 inches, this is a non-stringy variety that’s winter hardy.

Overhead closely cropped square image of leafy 'Crimson Red' rhubarb planted in brown soil.

‘Crimson Red’ Rootstock

‘Crimson Red’ does best in USDA Hardiness Zones 3-8.

Another excellent option is ‘Chipman’s Canada Red.’ This cultivar is said to have a sweeter flavor than some other types.

A medium-sized 'Chipman's Canada Red' rhubarb plant growing in a black plastic container, with large, broad green leaves and skinny pinkish red stems, growing in a greenhouse surrounded by other, shorter plants.

‘Chipman’s Canada Red’ Live Plant

Live plants in #2 containers are available from Nature Hills Nursery.

If you’d like to try your hand at cultivating some heirloom seeds, consider the open-pollinated strain ‘Victoria,’ available via True Leaf Market.

Closeup of 'Victoria' rhubarb with pink stalks and broad green leaves.

‘Victoria’ Open-Pollinated Heirloom Seeds

You’ll get a packet of 500 seeds that produce heavily.

Oblique overhead square image of 'Victoria' rhubarb with reddish green stalks and green leaves.

‘Victoria’ Live Plants and Rootstock

Packages of 2 roots or 6 ‘Victoria’ live plants are available from Burpee, where this cultivar is known as a customer favorite that’s excellent for cooking, with a sweet, mild flavor. The stalks are more green and less red than other cultivars, more of a blush color, and these plants do well in zones 3-8.

Before It Is Eaten, It Wants to Eat

A heavy feeder, rhubarb likes well-drained, deep, fertile soil that’s high in organic matter. Soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5 is best.

It will tolerate some shade, but produces the best yields in full sun. And it likes plentiful, consistent moisture.

If drainage in your intended planting zone is less than ideal, plant each R. rhabarbarum seedling in its own little hill, so water drains away from the crown.

Top-down shot of a rhubarb plant with yellow and pink stalks, and large green leaves, growing in brown soil.

In its intended zones with cooler winters, rhubarb should be planted in the springtime. Sow seeds indoors 8-10 weeks before the average last frost, after soaking them in water for a few hours.

Southern gardeners who wish to grow seeds should plant them indoors in mid- to late August.

Place two seeds to each pot, ¼-inch deep in 4-inch pots filled with a good potting or seed-starting mix. Keep them indoors at room temperature until they sprout, and then move them to a bright window.

A rhubarb plant is growing in the garden, with pink stalks oriented in a circular formation around the crown, topped with large, ruffled fan-shaped green leaves.

When the seedlings reach 2 inches tall, move them outdoors to a shady location to begin to harden off. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy. After a couple weeks, move them to a brighter location with morning sun.

They can be transplanted to a sunny spot in the garden when they’re about 4 inches tall and have three to five leaves each, after the risk of frost has passed. In hotter southern zones, this should be done in late September or early October.

Potted seedlings should be transplanted at the same depth at which they are growing in their pots. Plant bare-root crowns 1-2 inches below the soil surface.

Pink rhubarb stalks are visible beneath large, green leaves growing in bright filtered sunshine.

Space plants 3 feet apart, so they will have room to spread.

Whether you plant in the spring or fall, add a thick layer of mulch to the growing area.

Oh, and some gardeners have had luck growing this veggie in containers as well. So that’s something to consider if your landscape is full up, or otherwise unsuitable.

You’ll want to start with a fairly large container, and plan to divide often.

Divide and Water

R. rhabarbarum appreciates constant moisture, but doesn’t want soggy soil. If you live in the Pacific Northwest, no supplemental water will likely be required. Southerners will have to engage the irrigation system regularly to keep the moisture consistent.

Early in the plants’ second spring, apply ½ cup of 10-10-10 fertilizer in a circle around your plants, taking care not to apply directly to the crown, which can burn it.

Vertical image of large rhubarb leaves growing in a circle with smaller stalks and developing leaves growing at the center of the crown, in the sunshine in brown soil.

Apply the same fertilizer after growth starts, and a final time after harvest.

Rotted manure also makes a great fertilizer for R. rhabarbarum.

Dig and split rhubarb roots every 3 to 4 years. Divide when plants are dormant in early spring (or fall).

Pests and Diseases to Look Out For

R. rhabarbarum is fairly free of pests and diseases, though there a few to keep an eye out for, including rhubarb curculio.

This half-inch-long beetle should be handpicked from plants when spotted. Or sprinkle diatomaceous earth around your garden beds.

If you see mites, treat them with neem oil, such as this one from Bonide that’s available via Amazon.

Bonide Neem Oil, 32 Oz.

This 32-ounce spray bottle is ready to use.

You may encounter fungal leaf rot. This can happen if the plants’ leaves remain wet for too long, or if plants are too crowded, with poor air circulation. Generally, only the leaves are impacted, not the stalks. Harvest stalks with impacted leaves first, and carefully remove and dispose of the leaves so as not to spread the fungus.

Phytophthora crown rot can occur if the plants’ subterranean bits sit in too much water for too long. Planting in hills, as mentioned above, can help prevent this problem.

To avoid introducing rot or fungal growth, be sure to plant in well-draining soil, and water at the base of plants rather than sprinkling the leaves. Watering in the morning can be helpful as well.

Alas, Patience Is Required

Most experts say it is best to wait to harvest stalks until the second or third year of growth.

Choose stalks that are at least 10 inches long, and take care to not harvest all the stalks from a given plant at once to avoid stressing the plant.

Let some leaves remain on perennial plants in the summer to generate energy for the next year’s growth, the same way you would let the leaves on daffodils be in preparation for the next year.

Pink and green rhubarb stalks grow in dark brown soil in the garden, topped with large green leaves.

All stalks can be harvested from annuals when the heat of the summer begins to set in, and crowns can be disposed of in the compost pile after your last harvest.

When it is time to harvest, grab a stalk and pull sideways — it should break off easily. Or you can cut the stalks off with a clean knife.

Immediately cut off the leaves and put them in the compost bin (unless they are diseased — in that case, seal them in a bag and dispose of them).

You can store cut stalks in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Wrap them in plastic, and for best results, stand them up in a container of water — much as you would fresh herbs — to keep them hydrated.

Pucker Up!

Rich in vitamin C and dietary fiber, rhubarb is not only delicious in a tangy, tart, and sour kinda way, but it is healthful, also.

Top down view of whole stalks and cut cubes of fresh rhubarb.

When looking for ways to use this vegetable in the kitchen, we must absolutely consider the classic strawberry rhubarb pie, such as this one from our sister site, Foodal. Sweet and sour, it has an old-fashioned flavor that deserves a place on the modern table.

A piece of strawberry rhubarb pie is on a white square-shaped plate with rounded edges, alongside a fork, with the rest of the pie in a yellow-orange ceramic dish at the top of the frame, and several whole red strawberries with green tops scattered to the left and right on a white marble surface.
Photo by Meghan Yeager via Foodal.

Also from Foodal comes a mouthwatering rhubarb buttermilk sherbet, also starring the unmistakable flavor of rhubarb.

A bowl of buttermilk rhubarb sherbet.
Photo by Kendall Vanderslice via Foodal.

If you’d like a refreshing beverage featuring this tart delight, check out this recipe from The Fitchen for rhubarb mint pink lemonade. You can even grow your own mint for this one!

For a savory course that features rhubarb, how about these barbecue pork ribs with rhubarb chutney from Sugar Love Spices?

For even more rubbard recipes, check out all that is available over on Foodal.

Plenty to Go Around

Far less complicated than the fancy recipes above, my mom usually just made a crumble with our neighbor’s generous bounty. But it was absolutely scrumptious.

Eight pink rhubarb stalks are just beginning to emerge from the ground in the spring, topped with small, wrinkled, yellow-green leaves, with a white sky and trees in the distance.

Consider growing your own deliciousness. Make sure the plants have enough water, a little fertilizer, and divide them every few years. You’ll have enough rhubarb to make plenty of pies, and also be able share a large bundle of stalks with the young neighbor girl down the street.

Have you ever grown this fruit-vegetable? Tell us about your experience in the comments section below, and if you’d like tips on growing another oft-mislabeled fregetable/vruit, read up on tomatoes here.


Don’t forget to Pin It!

A collage of photos showing different views of rhubarb growing in a garden.

Photo by Gretchen Heber © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Product photos via Growers Solution, Mountain Valley Seed Company, Nature Hills Nursery, and Bonide. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock. Originally published by Mike Quinn on September 29th, 2014. Last updated on May 4th, 2018 with additional writing and editing by Allison Sidhu.

The staff at Gardener’s Path are not medical professionals and this article should not be construed as medical advice intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or promise cure. Gardener’s Path and Ask the Experts, LLC assume no liability for the use or misuse of the material presented above. Always consult with a medical professional before changing your diet or using plant-based remedies or supplements for health and wellness.

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About Gretchen Heber

A former garden editor for a daily newspaper in Austin, Texas, Gretchen Heber goes through entirely too many pruners and garden gloves in a year’s time. She’s never met a succulent she didn’t like and gets really irritated every 3-4 years when Austin actually has a freeze cold enough to kill them. To Gretchen, nothing is more rewarding than a quick dash to the garden to pluck herbs to season the evening meal. And it’s definitely time for a happy dance when she’s able to beat the squirrels to the peaches, figs, or loquats.

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Jeremy Starke
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Jeremy Starke

Wow, I have never grown rhubarb before and just never thought about it. However, you were very convincing that I need to try it out. It is a stunning plant as well.

Greg McNeal
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Greg McNeal

Back in 1974/75 Organic Gardening publication advised to dig in wood ashes from the fireplace into to soil for planting rhubarb crowns. The claim was that it would both provide potasium and aid in prevention of winter rot of the crown when winter is overly wet, cold or long. I did this last year along with homemade compost for a 3 year old crown gifted to me by a co-worker. The crop was so bountiful it supplied the neighbors, my coworker and I rhubarb from late spring through December.

Maire Greske
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Maire Greske

I am so glad to find this article. The rhubarb plant I ordered last fall has just shipped and I want it to grow well.
We always had it growing in our back garden when growing up in Ireland. As kids we would eat the stalks raw just dipping them in the sugar bowl. Last year I found some at our local Tom Thumb and introduced it to the hubby and our grown kids.

Karen
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Karen

I have a greenish/yellowish bulb growing out of the middle of my rhubarb plant. What is it and should I not disturb it?

Allison Sidhu
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Allison Sidhu

Can’t say for sure, Karen, but it sounds like this is the beginning of a new stalk. Our best advice is to wait and see what happens, and let it grow! Hard to say without seeing what you’re referring to, though. Feel free to send a picture.

Doug
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Doug

My dad gifted us their plants when they moved, and we’ve been enjoying rhubarb since. Even give some away once in a while. Some years are better harvests than others, probably because of where they sit near the house, but we do get some every year!

Julie
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Julie

My mom always grew rhubarb when I was growing up and I planted some of my own a few years ago. The Victoria plants are green but tasty and growing well. I also have a crimson red that is a beautiful red color but the stalks only get about as big as a pencil. I have never picked anything from the plant and am wondering if I should be doing something different to get it to grow larger. Thanks!!

Allison Sidhu
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Allison Sidhu

While some cultivars do produce thinner stalks than others, it sounds like your Crimson may be suffering from a lack of fertilizer, or overcrowding. Are these plants older than the Victorias, or maybe significantly younger? Plants under 2 years old have not yet reached maturity, while the older ones may benefit from division to give them some more space to grow, or amending the soil with additional fertilizer. Either way, skip harvesting from the plants with thinner stalks to allow these plants that may be suffering to keep their energy reserves intact.

Cindy Carnry
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Cindy Carnry

Yesterday morning I made 14 pints of Strawberry Rhubarb jam or sauce.
We live in NW Illinois and our Rhubarb plants are abundant not only are they delicious in so many recipes they make good ground cover and keep most weeds away. I like them better then hostas because you can eat them! Lol
My favorite thing is that Rhubarb is the first thing to pop up after a cold winter!

Mike Quinn
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Mike Quinn

Hi Cindy Carnry Sounds tasty! Actually hostas are edible (make sure they are actually hostas as there are a few look-alikes).

If you’ve got an over abundance, be sure to head over to our sister site, Foodal, where we’ve got a small collection of Rhubarb recipes going: https://foodal.com/tag/rhubarb/

Joyce Iddon
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Joyce Iddon

I planted rhubarb about 12 years ago. We have had great harvests until about 3 years ago. Last year I did get a few stalks. This year it had grown a stalk straight up with the bundles of little flowers. Can these be used as seeds? It looks like an odd weed.