Q. When and for how long can I harvest rhubarb? - Jeff Naftzger, New Ulm, Minnesota
A. As with all perennial edibles, it is best to wait a few years before harvesting rhubarb to allow the plant to fully establish a strong root base, says Ellen Ecker Ogden, author of The Complete Kitchen Garden (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2011). Once the plant is vigorously producing, which may be up to 3 or 4 years depending on the size of the original plant, rhubarb is ready to harvest. Start harvesting when the leaves expand in the spring, picking stems that are at least 1 inch thick by gently tugging and twisting at the base of individual stalks to free them from the crown. Or use a sharp knife to cut off stems, taking care to avoid injuring buds just below the soil surface. Toss the inedible leaves, which are toxic to humans but pose no hazards to soil organisms or other plants, into the compost pile, or lay them on top of the soil as a light mulch in the vegetable garden.
Leave a half-dozen healthy stalks on the plant during the growing season to continue to nourish the plant roots. Rhubarb is most productive in the early spring, yet will continue to produce stalks and foliage for most of the summer if conditions are right. To keep the plant’s energy going into leaf production, remove seed stalks as soon as they appear. Don’t be surprised when the whole plant naturally dies back at the end of the season, disappearing until the following spring, Ogden adds.
Ask Organic Gardening is edited by Deb Martin
Photograph by Rob Cardillo Photography
Originally published in Organic Gardening magazine, April/May 2014