So you want to make Nadia’s beautiful rhubarb crisp. Or her gorgeous honey yogurt panna cotta with roasted rhubarb and pomegranate. Or perhaps her crazy amazing rhubarb, orange, and chocolate chunk muffins. The easy way to get your hands on all the juicy rhubarb stalks you need is to hit the farmers market. The AP version: grow the rhubarb yourself. Yes! It’s totally doable! For the basics on what kind of space rhubarb plants need and a little hand-holding to help you decide if you’re ready for the rhubarb big leagues, check out last week’s rhubarb post. If you’re in, read on for all the nitty gritty planting instructions.
Rhubarb, like strawberries and grapes, is not a plant you want to try to grow from seed. The rhubarb seed situation is complicated, and the plant you’ll get from seed is likely to be far less delightsome than the plant you’ll get from a “vegetative start.” In the case of rhubarb, this vegetative start is called a crown. Rhubarb crowns have root parts and buds for new above-ground growth. Here’s what they look like:
If you live in the country and all your neighbors have rhubarb, you can mosey on down the lane and ask one of them to cut you off a hunk from one of their plants. If you’re like me and your neighbors max out at windowbox petunias, mosey on over to the internet. Order some rhubarb from an online nursery, and what you’ll get in the mail are rhubarb crowns just like the ones in the picture. Here are a few good options:
- Valentine Rhubarb (love the name of that variety!) from Gurney’s Seed & Nursery Co.
- MacDonald Rhubarb from Nourse Farms
- Canada Red Rhubarb from Spring River Nurseries
When your crowns arrive, they may not have sprouted fresh growth at the top yet, but you can still tell the top from the bottom by looking for those rooty outcroppings.
If you recall from last week, rhubarb gets big, so you need a LARGE pot. Fill that large pot with standard potting soil and mix in some compost. Next, dig a hole in the soil about four inches deep. Put the root side of the crown down, fill in the hole, and water every day (or frequently enough to keep the soil from drying out). Rhubarb does best in cool weather, so the ideal time to plant your rhubarb crowns is April or so. If you just can’t wait, you can give it a try this October.
The hardest part of rhubarb is waiting, and this is where I have to break some news. Rhubarb is a perennial, meaning it comes back year after year, which is great! But if you want armfuls of rhubarb for years to come, the wisdom of the ages says don’t use any of the first year’s stalks. Just let the plant grow and establish itself, and in the years that follow, go ahead and harvest a third of the stalks, no more. Tough, I know. And I’m never going to make it. I’m gonna have to steal some stalks from my first-year rhubarb. I hope it will eventually forgive me.