What To Do with that Rhubarb Plant Growing in Your Backyard

Rhubarb is a staple in many Iowan backyards. But that doesn’t mean everyone knows how to grow it.

When I first moved to our acreage, I was excited to see numerous rhubarb plants. I excitedly took a knife to the plants, cutting the stalks free, and tossing the leaves in the trash. I loved the beautiful flowers that grew from the centers of the plants and frequently brought them inside to enjoy.

Now that I’ve been on a farm for over a decade, I’ve learned I was making many of the same mistakes other beginning homesteaders make. And since we are right in the heart of Rhubarb Season, I’m here today to tell you DON’T DO WHAT I DID!

When to harvest:
Technically, rhubarb is ripe all the time. It’s best though to wait until the stalks are about 10” long to harvest. This ensures the plant has established itself enough to continue growing that year. You can continue harvesting rhubarb until frost, but never harvest all the stalks from the plant before new ones grow.

How to harvest:
Just hold at the bottom of the stalk and give it a yank out of the ground. There is no need to cut it. The stalk will pull easily loose. You CAN use a knife to cut it, but why bring an unnecessary tool to the garden?

What to do with the leaves:
The leaves are poisonous so don’t eat them. I’ve read you aren’t even supposed to give them to your chickens, but I’ve forgotten a time or two and my chickens eat them just fine. Perhaps they just can’t eat too many? Honestly, I don’t know. Usually we compost the leaves. The oxalic acid, the toxic part in the leaves, breaks down quickly in the compost pile so you can add them without worries.

Why does it bloom and what should I do with the flowers?
When rhubarb “bolts” or “goes to seed,” it produces flowers. That’s the plant’s way of reproducing. This usually happens when it’s hotter than normal (rhubarb likes cooler temps), the plant is older, or it is under stress (lack of water, pests). While the rhubarb is producing seeds, it puts less energy into growing leaves which means you will get less to eat. The plant doesn’t need to produce seeds in order for you to get more plants. (See next section.)

We cut the flowers from the stalks as soon as we see them. The stalks are still edible and tasty so just keep right on harvesting them. You can toss the flowers in your compost along with the leaves. Or you can bring them inside for a unique flower bouquet (like I used to do when I let them get far too big).

How do I get more plants?
A rhubarb plant will continue to produce stalks for years, but it is best to give new life to the plant every few years. After that time period, the plant will start to produce less than stellar stalks because the root is old and tough.  

Diving the plant is easy. Simply dig up the root ball (at least 6” deep) in the spring. Then divide the plant by taking a spade or other shovel and “slice” the root into smaller clumps. It’s best to have 2-3 buds per new plant. If you can’t replant the buds right away, place in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Otherwise transplant each new crown 6” deep so the buds rest just below the surface. Water well.

If you divide the plant when stalks have already started growing, those will die off, but new ones will grow. Don’t harvest the older stalks. You can harvest a few stalks from each new plant the first year, but then let it grow as many leaves as possible, cutting the flowers are they appear. The next spring you can harvest to your heart’s delight!

Now that you know all about the rhubarb plant growing in your backyard, check out the CSA member recipe below. It’s delicious! Send me any gardening or homesteading questions and I can answer them in a future blog post!

Rhubarb Bars:

1 1/2 C flour
1 1/2 C butter
1/2 C powdered sugar
Mix above ingredients by cutting in butter like a pie crust.  Pat into a 9X13 pan with raised edges. Bake 15 min. at 350.

 The Young Farm Girls and I couldn't help ourselves...we ate almost the whole pan in one day!

The Young Farm Girls and I couldn't help ourselves...we ate almost the whole pan in one day!

Mix together the following ingredients and pour over partially baked crust.
3 beaten eggs
1 3/4 C sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1/3 C flour
3 C rhubarb cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1/2 C walnuts
Bake 40 min. more at 350.