How to grow rhubarb
All you need to know about growing rhubarb, in our practical Grow Guide.
Rhubarb is easy to grow, producing masses of delicious stalks every year. Only the rhubarb stalks are edible. Never eat rhubarb leaves as these are extremely poisonous – compost these instead.
Despite being a vegetable, rhubarb is considered to be one of the earliest fruits of the year. By forcing rhubarb in late winter, you can be harvesting delicious rhubarb stalks as early as March. Rhubarb can be used in a variety of ways but is usually stewed with a little sugar and used in crumbles and as a nutritious topping for porridge. You can also use rhubarb to make cordials and other drinks.
Rhubarb: plant profile
Botanical name: Rheum
Common name: Rhubarb
Plant type: Vegetable
Flower colours: Pink
Plant: April-May or September-October
Harvest: February, June-July, September-October
Sun exposure: Partial shade
Soil type: Clay / heavy / moist / well drained / light / sandy
Toxicity: Foliage is toxic to cats, dogs, horses and people.
Preferred growing conditions vary slightly depending on the variety of rhubarb.
How to grow rhubarb
- Plant rhubarb in fertile, free-draining soil with added organic matter, such as well-rotted horse manure.
- Allow plenty of space around the plant so it can spread out.
- Water during dry periods and mulch annually, in autumn.
It's a good idea to remove any flower stems when they appear, to direct energy back into stem production. To harvest rhubarb, take the entire stem, gently twisting and then pulling it upwards from the base.
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Where to plant rhubarb
Rhubarb needs an open, sunny or partially shaded site, and rich, moist soil. It will grow well in a sunny, open site, on a wide range of soils, as long as it has been well-prepared with plenty of manure or compost. Rhubarb can be grown in a container but you'll get much better results from growing rhubarb in the ground.
How and when to plant rhubarb
The best way to plant rhubarb is to plant rhubarb crowns. Crowns are offsets cut from divisions of vigorous parent plants – usually they will be a piece of root with at least one dormant bud visible. Plant them in late autumn, 90cm or more apart, depending on the eventual spread of your chosen cultivar.
If you like the challenge of growing from seed, sow rhubarb outdoors in spring in a seedbed, thinning to 15cm apart and then once more to 30cm apart. The quality of seed-grown rhubarb can vary, so be ruthless in selecting the strongest plants to grow on. Plant out your chosen plants in a permanent site in autumn or spring.
Alan Titchmarsh demonstrates how to plant rhubarb in this No Fuss video guide:
Caring for rhubarb
Rhubarb doesn't need much attention, and once established, rhubarb plants will be productive for around 10 years. Maintaining soil fertility is the key to keeping plants healthy. Mulch around the base of plants with home-made compost, well-rotted manure and leaf mould in autumn, to suppress weeds, increase fertility and retain soil moisture. Giving plants a liquid feed in spring will also aid strong growth.
Here, Monty Don explains how to care for rhubarb in autumn, including how to divide and replant established clumps, to rejuvenate them:
How to force rhubarb
To get the sweetest and earliest crop of rhubarb you'll need to force rhubarb plants to produce stems before they would normally be ready. This simply means covering the crowns in early winter, to stop light from reaching the emerging rhubarb stems. You can use a bin or bucket, or a traditional terracotta rhubarb forcer – any cover that's at least 45cm high. Simply place this over developing crowns and check every week or so. Your rhubarb plants will have developed tender stems after around five weeks.
If you have a greenhouse or garage, you can lift rhubarb plants to force them indoors, for an even earlier crop. Dig up crowns in November and leave them on the soil surface to chill for two weeks. This will break dormancy. Then pot up each crown in compost, before moving into a cool indoor spot, and then cover.
It’s best to wait until your plants are well-established before forcing rhubarb, as it takes quite a lot of energy from the plant. Forced rhubarb plants will not usually produce much of a crop later on, but can be divided and replanted in summer.
How to propagate rhubarb
Splitting, or dividing rhubarb crowns gives new life to the plant, as well as enabling you to increase your stock of young, healthy rhubarb plants. Dividing rhubarb is easy – simply dig the existing crown up, then use a spade, garden fork or even old kitchen knife to split the crown into sections, with each section containing 1-3 buds. Ensure each section has a good set of roots attached and discard any tough, woody material from the centre. Replant the smaller crowns in moist, fertile soil and water well. Avoid harvesting rhubarb from these divided sections in the first year.
Harvest rhubarb stems when they're green or red. For strong and healthy growth, don’t harvest rhubarb in the first year, and take only a few stalks in the second. If you have established plants, three or more years old, rhubarb is ready to harvest from spring onwards, as soon as the stalks are long enough – between 30-60cm, depending on the variety. There’s no need to use a knife when harvesting rhubarb, simply pull and twist the stems off the plant, as this stimulates fresh new growth.
Forced rhubarb is usually ready from late winter to early spring. The stems will be shorter, but sweeter.
Here, Monty Don demonstrates the best way to harvest rhubarb:
How to cook and store rhubarb
Rhubarb is at its most delicious when cooked after being freshly picked. However, it can be frozen, raw and cut into chunks, or after cooking.
Growing rhubarb: problem solving
Rhubarb plants can be prone to honey fungus, crown rot and viruses. Any of these diseases will weaken the plant and it is best to dig up affected plants and start again on a new site. Crown rot is the most common. It’s a fungal infection at the base of the stalks, and causes the crowns to turn brown and soft. Unfortunately there’s no remedy.
Why does my rhubarb keep flowering?
Here, Lucy Hall, Gardeners' World Magazine, explains why flowering rhubarb can be a problem, and how to deal with it:
Rhubarb varieties to grow
- Rhubarb 'Timperley Early' – ideal for forcing, this will produce tender pink stems in February. But even unforced, it is one of the earliest varieties, ready to harvest from March
- Rhubarb 'Stockbridge Arrow' – long, thick stems with a good colour and sweet flavour. Leaves are arrow-shaped and very ornamental, which makes it a great choice for mixed borders and smaller gardens. H: 60cm x S:1.2m
- Rhubarb 'Cawood Delight' – a relatively new variety, producing dark pinky-red stems with a good shine and flavour. Although valued for its high quality stems, it produces smaller yields and is not suitable for forcing. H:1.4m x S:1.4m
- Rhubarb 'Victoria' – an old and reliable variety, reputedly named after Queen Victoria. It produces high yields of long stems with a sweet flavour and good texture and can be harvested as baby stems, forced or simply left to mature. H:1.4m x S:1.4m
- Rhubarb 'Fulton's Strawberry Surprise' – a newer introduction with vivid red stems on strong, vigorous plants. H:1.4m x S:1.4m
- Rhubarb ‘Livingstone’ – a new variety that crops in autumn and spring