(Lori Adams, who owns Down-To-Earth U-Pick Garden and is a frequent vendor at the Sitka Farmers Market, will be writing a regular garden column in the Daily Sitka Sentinel this summer. The Sentinel is allowing us to reprint the columns on this site after they first appear in the newspaper. This column appeared on Page 4 of the Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012, edition of the Daily Sitka Sentinel.)
GARDENING IN SITKA
By Lori Adams
EVERYTHING I’VE LEARNED ABOUT GROWING RHUBARB
Rhubarb grows so well here that I’m surprised it’s not indigenous. I have always been amazed at how many customers come out to the Down-To-Earth U-Pick Garden just to pick it because I figured everyone had a clump growing behind their house.
Rhubarb is a vegetable but it is used most often like a fruit in pies and desserts. It grows out of a tuberous root system. The stalks are very tart, tasting a lot like lemon, and the leaves are poisonous but can be composted.
The best way to started growing it is to get a clump of roots from another Sitka gardener any time after May 15 but before Sept. 15. Penny Brown out at Garden Ventures has sold rhubarb seeds in the past and has had good reports from customers who have planted them, but I have no experience with rhubarb seeds.
The best growing conditions for a rhubarb patch in Sitka are partial shade, acidic soil, plenty of moisture, and a thick layer of mulch and nitrogen-rich food spring and fall. If at any point a flower stalk comes up out of the center of the plant it should be removed to ensure that the plant uses all of its energy to grow edible stalks. The flower is totally useless unless you are planning to save seeds. Just use a knife and cut it off close to the base of the plant.
It would be best not to harvest any stalks from your patch the first year and then in the following years harvest as much as you like as long as you don’t take more than two-thirds of the stalks from each clump each time you pick. It’s good to leave at least one or two stalks on the plant at the end of the season to die naturally to ensure that the plant is photosynthesizing up until the very end.
Rhubarb is “ripe” at any size. It does not change in flavor as it matures, but large, old stalks can get “pithy” or tough if they aren’t utilized and should be removed and thrown away. If most of your stalks are pithy you are not watering your patch enough. DO NOT cut your stalks from the plant when harvesting. It’s best to pull them loose by twisting them while pulling down and out with one hand and supporting the rest of the plant with the other. New plants could pull completely out of the ground and clumps of stalks can come out all together if you are not careful.
The entire stalk can be chopped up for use — even the very bottom tip that is white is good. Rhubarb holds up really well in the freezer. Just measure out enough for a pie and put it in a labeled Zip-Lock bag and throw it in the freezer. No blanching is necessary. When it’s thawed out it will be kind of freezer burnt and soggy looking, but it cooks up just beautifully.
Rhubarb grows well in a pot but after a few years the root system will grow too large for the pot and the plant will become less and less productive. It’s also more susceptible during freezing weather so it’s best to grow it right in the ground.
About every five years or so it is beneficial to divide the plant. Shove a space right down through the middle of the clump and cut it into four pieces. The tubers can be very large and go very deep but you can be quite aggressive while dividing. Rhubarb is very hardy and even a portion of a tuber can survive just fine.
Replant some of the clumps for yourself but be sure to share the others with your neighbors It’s good to spread the love!
Brought to you by Down-To-Earth U-Pick Garden
2103 Sawmill Creek Road
Open June-August / Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
747-6108 or 738-2241