Growing Old Fashioned Rhubarb

Growing Old Fashioned Rhubarb
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My Grandma Maudie loved making Rhubarb Pie. I can remember those homely looking plants with the reddish green stalks that reminded me of rose colored celery. It seemed like they had been in the same garden spot forever. It's hard to image how someone discovered rhubarb's uses, especially since only the stalks are edible, but the leaves are poisonous! It's an old fashioned favorite that grows in our Midwestern cities and in the country side. My husband recalls his Grandma Ida making sauces, pies and jam with the rhubarb that always grew behind their shed in somewhat sandy soil. As a child, he thought it was a weed, but loved her jam and pie.
If you would like to plant your own rhubarb, look for it at your local garden center. It does need two months or more of cold weather in Zones where the ground freezes. You can start it from seed but the process is long and often the seeds do not produce a true type of rhubarb. If you can "borrow" three root divisions from a friend or family member that would be plenty for one family. Choose a sunny, well drained spot that is out of the way. Rhubarb is very long-lived and you won't want to move it much, since it takes two years to really become established before harvesting. You can harvest the stalks that are at least one inch thick the second year, but you won't really have an abundance of stalks until the third year. However, after this you will have all the rhubarb you can pick during the spring months, which is the harvest time.

Plant your divisions in a hole you have prepared by digging your soil and mixing in compost or other organic matter, such as decomposed leaves or manure. It should be planted about 2" deep, with one crown, or division, in each hole. Give them plenty of room, about 3 foot apart if possible.

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Be sure to remove the flower stalks before they bloom to help the stalks develop. After several years if the stalks start looking thinner you will need to divide the plants. Dig up the roots in the spring as they begin to sprout and divide so each crown has about 3 "eyes". Replant what you would like to keep and give away the remaining divisions to friends and family. Lastly, be sure to keep the area around your rhubarb clean and weed around it so there is plenty of air circulation, which will help keep it healthy.

A special note about frost and rhubarb. IF your plants are exposed to frost, and you can see damage or the stalks are mushy, DO NOT use them. If they have froze it can change the plant, and it may be toxic. You CAN use the stalks if they remain upright and are not damaged.

Once established, rhubarb will become a hearty, dependable vegetable that will come back year after year.


I have a question for you that I have not been able to resolve myself. My son laughs at me because I won't put rhubarb leaves in the compost pile - but we know rhubarb leaves are poisonous! It may sound silly to you too, but we are so carefully organic, and conservative with everything we use in the house and garden, it just seems wrong to put something poisonous back in to our garden. Can you tell me the real story? I would really be grateful. ~Fran

I don't think it's a silly question at all! I had a gut feeling about this, but did research to be sure, and according to good sources it's okay to put rhubarb in your compost. Remember, when we talk about "poisonous" plants, it's much different than toxic chemicals, which are man made and often don't even break down. The Colorado State University Extension website had this explanation:

"What actually occurs when rhubarb is added to a compost pile is that the oxalic acid is decomposed and pH balanced rather quickly. Thus, rhubarb leaves tend to break down to non-toxic components quickly in the average composting situation." ~Colorado State University Cooperative Extension

I really think you are safe in adding the rhubarb. One thought is that oxalic acid is also in potato plants and a few others, but we add those-- I wouldn't go so far as to put in poison ivy, oak or sumac though:)

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About The Author

Brenda Hyde is a freelance writer living on ten acres in rural Michigan with her husband and three kids. She is a mom, grandma, gardener, cook and writer. She blogs on all of these topics at


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