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Have patience with rhubarb

So good it’s in the border – rhubarb with golden marjoram and Lysimachia

Greed is not good when it comes to rhubarb – you need a little patience for the plant to build itself up.

Pot-grown rhubarb can be planted at any time, in an open, sunny site with free-draining soil.

With crowns, plant late autumn-early winter. You can plant later, but run the risk of crown rot.

If you planted new crowns in autumn, don’t harvest during the first year. Remove a few stems the next year, then up to a third or half from then on.

Stop cropping by June

It’s best to stop cropping by June (unless you have an autumn-cropping cultivar), or at least only remove a few stalks after then – older varieties often go stringy then and the plant needs the sustenance.

Fascinating emerging buds and pinkish leaves

Keep rhubarb free of weeds by mulching with composted manure, but avoid burying the crown as it will rot. Give plants 100g per sqm m of Growmore in March and water regularly in dry spells.

When the top growth dies back in autumn, remove the dead leaves to expose the crown to frost – this will ensure a good crop the following year.

A word of warning – only the stems of rhubarb are edible. The leaves contain toxic oxalic acid – cut off the leaves and add them to your compost heap – they will rot down safely there.

potted-guide-logoPotted guide: rhubarb

  • PLANTING TIME (POT GROWN): Anytime. CROWNS: October-December.
  • HARVESTING TIME: early spring (forced) to midsummer; autumn for late varieties.
  • PLANTING DISTANCE: Space plants 75-90cm (30-36in) apart, with 30cm (12in) between rows.
  • ASPECT AND SOIL: Sunny, well-drained soil (will tolerate some shade).
  • HARDINESS: Hardy.
  • RECOMMENDED VARIETIES: Timperley Early: Thick stems, early, high yield. Bred for forcing; performs very well outside, but even better colour when forced. Victoria: Late (summer) type with heavy yields. Hawke’s Champagne: Compact plants with high yield potential. It has bright red, medium length, uniform stems. Livingstone: Autumn cropping, from September to November.

Forcing rhubarb

Traditional terracotta rhubarb forcers at RHS Harlow Carr

If you can’t wait until April for your first crops, try forcing an established plant.

In January, cover the crown with straw and place a large bucket over the top to exclude light – or use a traditional terracotta forcer, like these ones pictured at RHS Harlow Carr – but they’re really expensive.

The pale pink, tender stems can be harvested about eight weeks after covering.

Don’t force the same crown for two years in a row, as it weakens the plant.

Bizarre ornamental rhubarb buds

Rheum palmatum
Weird spectacle of the ornamental rhubarb bursting forth

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? It’s the weird buds and leaves of the ornamental rhubarb, Rheum palmatum, after bursting forth in April. (It’s also sometimes called Chinese or Turkey rhubarb.)

I’d really recommend growing it – it’s a talking point. Huge purple leaves, maturing to dark green and purple underneath, eventually reaching to about 7ft tall with an even bigger flower spike.

Rheum palmatum
This may upset those of a nervous disposition

The flower stalk is particularly rude in bud – use your imagination.

WORD OF WARNING 1: It’s poisonous – you can’t eat any of it (ordinary rhubarb leaves are too, containing oxalic acid, a kidney toxin, and corrosive acid).

WORD OF WARNING 2: The crown is so tough and fibrous, I damaged my wrist ligaments while trying to divide one with a spade. Not recommended.