In the Garden:
Western Mountains and High Plains
March, 2008
Regional Report

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Spring weather and a warming soil awaken rhubarb buds.

Amazing Rhubarb

Spring is in the air and some sure signs of it are bursting out in the rhubarb patch. This perennial vegetable reliably provides the first "fruit" of the season. I can almost smell the first simmering pot of rhubarb on the wood-burning stove, flavored with farm-fresh honey, for a tasty dessert. Rhubarb can be used either alone or in combination with other fruits such as strawberries, apples, or pineapple. It makes such a delicious pie that it is often called the "pie plant."

One of the other attributes I like about rhubarb is its ornamental value in the landscape. It grows rapidly, with large leaves spreading 2 to 3 feet, much like a tropical plant. It can provide a screen or backdrop for a perennial bed or an accent in the garden. Red, yellow, and green varieties can be grown for their ornamental value, but the red varieties are preferred for their taste and tenderness. The old-fashioned green types are often more productive than the red. You just have to add more sugar or honey to the green stalks if you plan on making a pie.

Most of us know that the leaves of rhubarb contain oxalic acid, which is toxic to animals and humans. Cut off the leaves and an inch of stalk when you harvest. I like to grind up the leaves and other parts that are not usable and place them in the compost pile. The composting process will breakdown and dissipate the oxalic acid crystals.

Easy to Grow
Rhubarb is dependable in our cooler climate since it requires temperatures below 40 degrees F to break dormancy and stimulate bud growth. Too much heat will cause rhubarb to develop thin stalks and leaves. Rhubard isn't fussy about soil and will grow reliably in poor soils, but it responds best in a rich, well-drained, compost-enriched soil. For the deepest coloration in the stalks and the healthiest growth, plant rhubarb in full sun. Since it is a long-lived perennial, pick a spot where it can grow undisturbed and leave plenty of space for leaf spread and upright growth. Every fall and spring, pile on the compost or well-rotted manure to continually enrich the soil. I spread at least 2 inches of rotted manure around the plants and lightly incorporate it into the soil around the rhubarb plants.

If you're planting rhubarb for the first time you will most likely get small bare-root starts. Set the crowns 1 to 2 inches below the ground level. Firm the soil gently and water in thoroughly. New rhubarb plants like regular watering to become well established. When the plants mature, they are very drought resistant.

Once planted, rhubarb will last for years, often outlasting the gardener who originally planted it. So if you have some space and full sun, consider this dependable perennial vegetable -- or should I say tasty "fruit" -- packed with vitamin A for pies and other cooked desserts.


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