There’s nothing like Rhubarb, right out of the garden

The other day my wife said that she missed Rhubarb pie — not any Rhubarb pie, the Rhubarb pie my mom used to make. The type made with fresh Rhubarb right out of the garden.

She went on to remind me that my brothers loved the cooked Rhubarb sauce right before she preserved it using the pressure canner. The whole family of 10 enjoyed Rhubarb throughout the year.

She then said we should have a Rhubarb garden. My wife was raised on a small farm with the fertile soils of Fulton County. I was raised in Maumee with its heavy clay soil. Even with our heavy clay we had a small Rhubarb patch.

Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum L.) is a cool season, hardy, perennial vegetable, grown for its leafstalks that have a unique tangy taste used for pies and sauces. Rhubarb was first cultivated in the Far East more than 2,000 years ago. It was initially grown for medicinal purposes but later was grown for culinary use both in Britain and America during the 18th century.

Ohio is well-suited for growing rhubarb. This crop requires winter temperatures below 40 degrees to break dormancy and stimulate spring growth and needs summer temperatures averaging less than 75° F for vigorous vegetative growth.

The tops are usually killed in the first heavy freeze in the fall, but the roots survive and produce new tops the following spring. While the leafstalks are edible, the leaves themselves contain oxalic acid and is toxic to humans. Oxalic acid is toxic because of its acidic properties. It may cause burns, and when ingested nausea, severe gastroenteritis and vomiting, shock and convulsions. Besides the downside of the leaves being toxic, rhubarb is not bothered by insect pests or diseases.

Rhubarb will grow and produce in most soils. However, the most productive plants prefer well-drained soil with rich organic matter content. The planting area should be free of weeds. Other considerations for a planting site are areas free from the heavy shade of trees and buildings. Rhubarb though will tolerate some light shade.

Neighbors often share crowns when they divide their Rhubarb after 10 years or so. However, if you are looking to purchase new crowns, look for these cultivars that produce well in Ohio: MacDonald, Crimson Red, Victoria, Canada Red, Cawood Delight, Glaskin’s Perpetual, and Valentine. Rhubarb does have the tendency to bolt or produce flower heads when it becomes warm during the summer.

It is best to cut the flower heads off to promote vegetative growth. Beware of Chinese rhubarb (Rheum palmatum), also known as ornamental rhubarb. Chinese Rhubarb normally have short stalks and are not edible for consumption.

When preparing the planting bed incorporate 3-4 inches of organic matter with a complete fertilizer with a 1:1:1 ratio such as an 12-12-12 or 10-10-10, at 6 ounces per 10 square feet. Plant crowns in early spring when the roots are still dormant, or the plants are just beginning to leaf out. Rhubarb can also be planted in the fall after dormancy has set in. Individual crowns should be spaced 3 feet apart. Cover the crowns with no more than an inch or two of soil. Tamp soil and water well. Remove flower stalks as they appear. Rhubarb, like most vegetables, requires regular irrigation during dry weather. Keep the soil moist but not soggy.

For the plant to become well established, leafstalks should not be harvested the first year and only a few should be harvested the second year. From the third year on, rhubarb is harvested from late April throughout June. Stop harvesting leafstalks when the plant begins to produce slender stalks, a sign that its reserves are low. Never harvest more than one-third to one-half of the plant’s stalks to preserve enough foliage to sustain the crown. The stalks are most flavorful when young, so harvest them soon after the leaf expands. Harvest by grasping each leafstalk near the base and pulling it slightly to one side.

Fresh rhubarb can be stored for two to four weeks at normal refrigerator temperatures. Store in perforated polyethylene bags in the refrigerator crisper drawer for best results. After the last harvest in early July, the plants should be allowed to grow until killed by frost.

If only I can make my mother-in-law’s flaky pie crust.