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Thursday, August 21, 2014
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Published: Wednesday, 5/28/2014 - Updated: 2 months ago

IN THE GARDEN

Rhubarb is a perennial favorite

Stalks not leaves; Tug it out; Put it in the freezer; Plant more

BY KELLY HEIDBREDER
GARDENING COLUMNIST FOR THE BLADE
Kelly Heidbreder Kelly Heidbreder
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It is one of the plants that seems to get ignored in the garden, but disappears quickly when it hits the dessert plate.

 

Rhubarb is one of the backup singers in your rock band of a landscape. But it is in the spotlight when you cut it and add a bunch of sugar, and it is ready to rock and roll right now. I must admit: I am a crazy fan.

 

 

Stalks not leaves

 

Rhubarb has huge leaves with red stalks. While its gigantic elephant ear-shaped leaves are beautiful, they‘re toxic. They contain oxalic acid and can make you sick. They make great mulch if you lay the big leaves in the rows of your garden and smother weeds. You can also toss them on your compost pile. The stalks are the tart part of the plant and are the only edible part.

 

 

Tug it out

 

Most varieties of rhubarb are ripening right now. If you have an established patch, you can start pulling some of it out of your garden right now. Young stalks usually have the most flavor and are best picked when the leaf starts to expand. Pull them off like celery; it is better for the plant to pull the stalks from the base. You can also cut them with a sharp knife or scissors. But cutting the stalks can cause the juice to seep from the ends and that tart liquid can attract bugs.

 

If you just planted your rhubarb patch last fall, you might want to beg your neighbor for some stalks and leave yours alone for this year. Give it a couple years to get established, then you can start cutting during the third year.

 

Try not to cut off more than a third of the plant at a time. It needs some foliage to feed its root system. If the stalks start getting skinny, it is time to stop harvesting and let the plant rest for the season.

 

 

Put it in the freezer

 

Too much rhubarb? That just doesn’t happen in my family. We fight over it. But if you are lucky enough to have an abundance, you can save some for later. Clean and chop the stems. Toss them in freezer bags with sugar. I usually freeze them based on my favorite recipe. You need four cups for a pie and five cups for a small jar of jelly.

 

Mark each bag with the ingredients and they will be ready at a moments notice when you are running out of your family’s favorite toast topping.

 

 

Plant more

 

Rhubarb is one of those perennials that you will find on the edge of your grandma’s garden along with her favorite heirloom tomatoes. It is an old, standby perennial that will last for decades. It can be grown in your vegetable garden, or in a sunny spot in your perennial bed. According to Ohio State University, the most common cultivars are MacDonald, Valentine, Victoria, Canada Red, and Crimson Red.

 

It has a root system that is like asparagus and will need some room to spread out. The roots are called crowns. Each crown needs about a square yard to spread out. Be careful not to plant them too deep. Keep the crowns about four inches below the soil line. If your rhubarb is struggling, it might be planted too deep.

 

Dig out a small area in your top soil that is about four inches deep and set your crown in it. Then cover it with a couple inches of soil. Press it down, then water it in.

 

Sometimes you will see your rhubarb plant send off a skinny shoot with a white flower on the tip. Those flowers only take away from the production of the coveted stalks emerging from the ground, so you can cut them off.

 

Time to tug some rhubarb.

 

Contact Kelly Heidbreder at getgrowing@gmail.com 



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