On Growing Rhubarb

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Until recently I thought tender all-summer long rhubarb was available only in place like England, the Pacific Northwest or Maine. Places with cool and moist summers. Places like Vachon Island where my blog pal Tom of Tall Clover Farm harvest armfuls upon armfuls of crimson stemmed monsters. Makes me turn green with envy…

I was convinced that rhubarb in Virginia was a fleeting all-too brief treasure, the plants sending flowers forth as soon as it got too hot and then considerably slowing down for the summer. Because this denizen of the mountains of Central Asia likes it cool. And since we rarely have a real long cool even-temperatured spring here (let alone a mild summer!), I thought: in Virginia you got rhubarb in May and that was it.

Anyway, that is indeed what I thought until very very recently. Until last week as a matter of fact.

Lat week I visited the garden of Mike McCormick of Lady Bug Mountain Farm, just a few miles from me. And I could not believe my eyes. Because Mike’ s rhubarb, is lush, full, vigorous, healthy and not blooming. Yep, still making stems and leaves – lots of them – and not flowers.

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I also have to confess that my previous opinion was at least partially based on a failed attempt to grow rhubarb in Northern Virginia over 10 years ago. Did not work.  It’s almost as if the plant looked around – said “yikes” and proceeded to die a slow death over the following year. It could of course have been any numbers of reasons: a poor quality plant to start, not enough watering, too much competition, wrong cultivar for my climate etc. Because, of course, I was trying to grow a red-stemmed rhubarb. I have since been told by a number of people that green stemmed rhubarb is much happier in Virginia. Yet, with a stubborn streak that I rarely demonstrate, I decided this spring to try again and ordered 3 cherry red rhubarb crowns which are duly planted and so far alive. Well… so far the weather has been incredibly pleasant and we’ve had plenty of rain too, so, so far, they can’t complain. Come July, they may express their displeasure stridently.

Rhubarb has a remarkably insatiable appetite in the garden: you cannot give it enough compost or manure to satisfy it (old garden books recommend that they be planted by the midden heap or the out house – that’s how rich they like it!). Mike’s secret weapon on growing rhubarb is lots and lots and lots of leaf mulch.  And obviously his rhubarb just love the attention.  He grows them in full sun. However,  since (like me) he also heard that  they don’t really care for our hot muggy summer, he planted a few crowns by an arborvitae hedge to get afternoon shade. Those plants are noticeably smaller and weaker – obviously too much competition for nutrients from the tree roots. Rhubarb might be a case of one of those plants that – against expectations – does extremely welt  in full sun at our latitude provided it receives plenty of moisture and nutrients. Like cowslips and hellebores for me.

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Mike’s rhubarb is green not red, although the stem ends near the crown are rosy. He has lost track of which cultivars they are, having moved them from his prior garden over 12 years ago. He says that in most years, he has rhubarb through the summer into the fall. Today, when I inquired about blooms, he told me his have been sending bloom stalks since early May but he cuts off the entire bloom stalks as soon as he sees them. They have better things to do than making seeds!

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I got 10 pounds from him last week. And today I just got another 10 pounds (belted on the passenger seat to get home). Rhubarb is sold without the leaves, since they are toxic, so don’t feel cheated when the vendor twists them off before weighing them. If you harvest your own, or if there leaf bits remaining on the ones your purchase, discard those leaves. Fresh rhubarb smells remarkably good, a pleasant refreshing fragrance that makes you anticipates its lively bracing taste.

I am sure I will get more later this summer – if only because I can now put local rhubarb on the menus I cook for clients’ parties.

Also since rhubarb freezes very well, I am putting some up for the winter. As long as you are going to cook it soft, freezing is fine: since freezing breaks the cells walls, it softens the rhubarb already, making it actually easier to extract the juice, or faster to cook them soft for … oh say… ice-cream? fool?

I am having fun making sorbet, ice-cream, syrup (for tea, cocktail, lemonade, rhubarb “kir”, spritzers and the likes), compote, jams (with vanilla bean, with ginger, with elder blossom cordial), tarts. I will also be trying some pairing with meat. While here in the US we tend to think of rhubarb as a fruit,  botanically  it is not one, it’s a stem, a vegetable like – say – celery or cardoon. In the kitchen we cook  it with sugar (and so we think of it as dessert or as fruit), but other culinary traditions pair rhubarb with meat – especially lamb. And since we grow great lamb in Rappahannock, some experimentation is “de rigeur”!

For those in Rappahannock, you can contact  Mike McCormick via e-mail  [michaelmccormick47 (AT) yahoo (DOT) com] or look him up in the phone book (Washington). Don’t just show up, call ahead please. He’ll pick your rhubarb fresh for you (he also has gorgeous peony flowers for sale). Mike also sells at the Reston’s Farmers’ Market.

For you people in Madison County, Khalil Hassan of Garden of Khmet sells at the Madison Farmers’ Market on Saturday morning and he’s got rhubarb. At least he’s got some now.

So… what are you waiting for?

(Rhubarb recipes in future posts)



6 thoughts on “On Growing Rhubarb”

  • It’s interesting that you mention the green rhubarb might be more vigorous than the red in Virginia. I have noticed this with many, not all, of our other garden plants as well…the green varieties of plants like Swiss chard, lettuces, and others often perform much better for us. We are growing a red variety of rhubarb this year for the first time, all we have previously grown are green…we shall see how it does. Best of luck with your rhubarb endeavours.

  • A very informative post and I appreciate your thoughts on red over green. Rhubarb is a first-time experiment for me this year (we live in a prealpine area) and so far it is looking good. My only worry is that planting it next to peppermint may have not been the wisest of ideas. I only hope that the rhubarb will kick peppermint’s butt in the end or else one of them will have to go!

  • Mike, I agree with you when it comes to Swiss chard: the green or white stemmed ones do very well for me, the red-stemmed Swiss chard is OK, and the yellow-stemmed one is a weakling!

    Rowena – somebody asked me on Facebook as to whether there is a taste difference between green & red. It’s subtle. I compared it to red and green apples: the taste is different, yet you can tell (even if you were blindfolded) that they are both apples! Hope rhubarb grows well for you and your two “thugs” come to an understanding.

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