Growing Rhubarb in an Edible Landscape

A rhubarb plant is an investment in the future—a long-lived addition to the yard. An herbaceous perennial with leaves that can grow from 2 to 4 feet tall, it has dramatic, 18-inch-wide, crinkly, green leaves atop rose red or green stalks. The red rhubarbs are so handsome they fit into the most sophisticated herbaceous border, flowerbed, or a foundation planting. Rhubarb also works well as an accent in a container and it is truly eye-catching when planted with red geraniums.

Rhubarb flowers bloom atop tall cream colored stalks. In warm-winter areas, cut them off when they emerge to focus the plant’s energy on stalks and leaves. In colder climates, where the plants are so vigorous and flower plumes so decorative, let them grow and show off in the summer.

Easily grown, with virtually no pests and diseases, rhubarb is hardy to zone 2. Here, it grows happily in this zone 7 Long Island garden. Sunlight coming through the plant emphasizes the red of the stalks and becomes a bright accent in your landscape.

How to Grow

Rhubarb has specific requirements. It needs at least 2 months of winter cold and is not productive in areas with very hot summers. In the high desert, plant it in autumn as a winter annual.

In most climates, grow rhubarb in full sun in acidic, well-drained loam rich in organic matter; in the high desert, choose an area with afternoon shade for coolness.  Mulch in spring and fall with compost or manure to keep weeds down and to feed the plant. In arid climates, provide 1 inch of water a week. I’ve had the most success with rhubarb when it’s been in a bed with overhead water rather than drip irrigation.

Rhubarb serves as a backdrop for low-growing herbs in the Denver Botanical Garden. The parsley and blooming oregano provide bright green accents against the red of the flowering amaranth and rhubarb stalks while the straw bee skep adds a rustic decorative touch.

Rhubarb has few pests and diseases.  If placed correctly and given a modest amount of attention, a plant will last a lifetime. Two to three plants are adequate for the average family.

Unless you are growing it as an annual, do not harvest any stalks the first year. After that, harvest by gently pulling or cutting off the thickest, healthiest stalks near soil level. Harvest begins in spring and, if the plants are healthy, goes well into summer. Growth slows down in hot weather, but picks up again in fall. Well-established plants tolerate an additional light fall harvest. After a decade or so, if the plant is getting crowded, dig it up and divide into three or four plants.

In my cool and dry Zone 9 garden, rhubarb is a focal point. Its large leaves contrast nicely with the small foliage of the boxwood and jasmine surrounding it. In winter, after the foliage dies down, I fill the empty space with tulip bulbs that bloom in the spring.

In the Kitchen

Cook the thick, fleshy leafstalks of this striking plant in traditional rhubarb pie, sauces, and stew; my favorite is strawberry-rhubarb pie—sweeter than straight rhubarb. You can even make rhubarb wine. Preserve rhubarb as jam or wine. Freeze or can stewed rhubarb.

Caution: Rhubarb leaves are deadly poisonous if eaten.

Rhubarb and Strawberry Cobbler

This traditional rhubarb cobbler is surprisingly light and creamy.

Filling:

3 cups rhubarb cut into 1/2” pieces

3 cups sliced strawberries

2/3 cups sugar

1 tablespoon orange or lemon peel

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon flour

Heat oven to 425 degrees F.

Place rhubarb, sugar, and orange peel into a saucepan. Heat over medium heat until rhubarb begins to juice, about 2 minutes. Add butter and flour and bring to a boil while stirring. Cook about 1 minute. Add sliced strawberries. Remove from heat and pour fruit mixture into a deep 10” pie dish.

Batter:

1 3/4 cups flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons butter, chilled

1/2 cup sugar, plus 2 tablespoons, divided

3/4 cups half and half

2 tablespoons grated orange or lemon peel

Optional: 1 cup heavy cream whipped with 1 tablespoon extra fine sugar

In a large bowl, sift flour, baking powder, and salt together. Cut butter into small pieces. With a fork, or a pastry cutter, cut in chilled butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add 1/2 cup sugar and blend. Slowly incorporate half/and half with a fork. Spoon dough over fruit to cover. Mix 2 tablespoons sugar and orange peel and sprinkle over top. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until golden brown. Cool slightly and serve with, or without, whipped cream. Serves 6.

For many people, strawberry-rhubarb is the first “fruit” pie of spring. There’s no need to fuss with fancy crusts or picture-perfect presentations; something so delicious will quickly disappear.

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