Starting a rhubarb patch

Jerry Vitalis

Chisago County
Master Gardener

Rhubarb is like asparagus: You either like it or you don’t. If you do, here’s what you need to know to grow your own.

Rhubarb should be planted early in the spring in well-drained soil where it receives full sun. Most gardeners plant it at the edge of the garden. Established rhubarb patches can last many years, so choose the site carefully.

The area should be worked up so the soil is loose for a depth of at least 2 feet.  Add plenty of compost or composted manure to increase organic matter.  Soil pH is not too important, as acidic, neutral or alkaline soil can support a good rhubarb crop.

Established rhubarb plants are quite large, so allow at least 3 square feet for each plant. Set the buds, or eyes, 2 inches below the soil surface.  Water thoroughly once a week during the growing season.

I bought a potted rhubarb plant from Ralph Peterson’s nursery in Lindstrom many years ago.  I planted it in the shade, too close to a building, where it sat and did nothing for years.  Finally, I dug it up, took an ax and chopped it into eight pieces. Those pieces are now a healthy rhubarb patch. If your old patch is not thriving, try moving it to a new location.

If the patch is getting crowded, it may be time to divide the roots. Rhubarb plants are often acquired from another gardener who is dividing his patch.

Insects are not generally a problem. If the rhubarb curculiom (stalk borers) are making holes in the crown and stalks, try controlling the weeds around the patch, especially curly docks. Stalk borers carry a virus that occasionally infects rhubarb, causing abnormal growth, loss of vigor, or unusual leaf coloration.  If the plant appears to be infected with a virus, it’s best to remove it from the garden and start over.

Rhubarb plants require a lot of organic matter and balanced, complete fertilizer.  Top dress with well-rotted manure in the fall.  In the spring, an early application of organic matter will give the plant a jump start.

Don’t harvest new plantings for two years, to avoid weakening the plant. To prevent injury to the plant, pull the stalks rather than cutting them.

Eat only the stalks. The leaves contain toxic oxalic acid, which is not deadly but can make you quite sick.