Q.: I just bought a rhubarb plant from the nursery for the third time. I would love to have a patch, an old-fashioned term used by my mother and grandmother, but it seems I am not able to keep it going for more than one or two seasons, and then the plant dies. What am I doing wrong?
A.: Recently, a Master Gardener contributed an article to our monthly newsletter on this subject. It included a recipe for rhubarb-strawberry crisp — and many of us enjoyed the suggestion to bake some for ourselves and the family and to top a still-warm helping with a dip of ice cream. This and many other favorite recipes are definitely a delicious way to enjoy rhubarb in spring and early summer. If, as we hope, it all works out for you this time and in a couple of years you have an abundance of rhubarb, it can be frozen for those wonderful pies during the winter months.
The following are tips on initial planting and keeping your rhubarb happy over time. Hope my answer helps you save your new rhubarb patch so it will last for 20 years or more:
•Now is a good time to plant rhubarb — which by the way is thought of as a fruit and used mostly in sweet recipes, but actually it is a vegetable.
•Choose a planting site in full sun and clear away all the weeds.
•For best success, for those who haven't yet purchased their first rhubarb plant, purchase roots instead of sowing seed.
•Dig a large hole — “the size of a bushel basket” (Old Farmer's Almanac).
•Amend the soil with compost and rotted manure, as rhubarb is a very heavy feeder – which just means it needs rich, fertile soil to thrive.
•Do not use chemical fertilizers when planting and for the first full year after — in fact, the use of nitrates during that time can kill the rhubarb plant.
•Mulch heavily after planting with straw or manure or both. This feeds the soil and keeps it moist and cool and the weeds from growing. Water well!
•Remove seed stalks as they appear — they take plant strength away from forming the edible stalks.
•Do not harvest any of the edible stalks during the first year after planting. This gives the plant time to become established.
•After the second or third year, harvest stalks when they are 12 to 18 inches long.
•Grab at the base of the stalk, pull and twist. If that doesn't work, go for the knife and cut just above the ground level.
•Always leave at least two stalks on the plant to encourage reproduction.
•Discard all leaves from the stalk, because every part of the rhubarb plant except for the stalk is poisonous.
•The plant will die back in the fall, so when this happens, remove and discard all debris. Then, after the ground freezes, mulch with manure and compost — maybe a layer of leaf mold as well.
•Remember that all dead debris left laying around on the soil under any of your plants can become a habitat for pest larva and eggs — so always clean up the garden in preparation for winter. Then, after the ground freezes, mulch around tender plants to protect the root zone.
If you have a recipe for making rhubarb-strawberry crisp, don't forget the scoop of ice cream on top while the crisp is warm.
Jane Ford is an Advanced Master Gardener. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. This column is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of The News-Sentinel.