Bring the “Tart” to Your Thanksgiving Table with Rhubarb

Of course, pumpkin and pecan pie reign supreme on many Thanksgiving tables, but fruit pies are often a close second in the pie-popularity race. A personal favorite of mine is rhubarb or strawberry-rhubarb pie.

People seem to have either a love or hate relationship with rhubarb, but if you are a rhubarb lover and have never tried growing it in your home garden, you really should give it a try. Rhubarb is super easy to grow!

Only the leaf stalks are suitable for eating. Image from

Rhubarb is not native to North America, it actually hails from southern Siberia, but that means it is very well-adapted to cold, dry conditions like those typically found during Nebraska winters.

Choose a location with full sun and well-drained soil, since rhubarb can be susceptible to crown rot in areas with excessive soil moisture. Growth is best in soil with a good level of organic matter, preferably 4-5%.  Rhubarb is a long-term perennial crop, so it’s worth your time to heavily amend the soil with compost before planting. Ideally rhubarb prefers a soil pH of 5.0-6.8, but it is very adaptable. Acidic, neutral or basic soils can all support a good crop.

Rhubarb is considered a heavy feeder. Producing large stalks and leaves, which are removed each year, means plants need nutrients and benefit from regular fertilization. Every year supplement the soil with either fertilizer, compost or both. If soil tests indicate a need for phosphorus, apply a complete fertilizer like 10-10-10 or 15-15-15, however if high levels of phosphorus are already present in your soil then use a no-phosphorus fertilizer, such as 30-0-10 or 24-0-15. Apply ½ cup of fertilizer per plant in spring as new growth begins and sidedress with the same amount again in late June. 

Good cultivars to consider for your garden include those below.

  • Canada Red – long stalks, very tender, moderate red, produces few seed stalks
  • Crimson (aka Crimson Cherry or Crimson Wine) – long, thick stalks are bright red color inside and outside
  • MacDonald – large pink-red stalks, vigorous upright plants, wilt resistant, medium to heavy seed stalk producer
  • Valentine – long red stalks, good flavor, medium vigor, few or no seed stalks
  • Victoria – green stalks shaded with red, medium sized stalks, good vigor, medium seed stalk production
Leaf blades contain a high amount of oxalic acid and should not be eaten. Image from

A rhubarb can be started in several ways – from transplants, crown divisions containing at least one large bud or “eye”, or bare root dormant crowns purchased from your local garden center or through mail order catalogs. Mature plants become very large, so allow about 3-4 feet for each plant to grow.

Plant dormant crowns in early spring as soon as the ground is workable. Dig a wide planting hole and loosen the underlying soil 10-12 inches deep. Lightly firm the soil, then spread the roots out in a flat layer, making sure the top of the crown is no more than two inches below the finished soil line.

Transplants purchased from a greenhouse should be properly hardened-off before planting outside to avoid any burning of the leaves from cold spring night temperatures. Plant as described above for dormant crowns, making sure the crown is no more than two inches below the soil line.

Established rhubarb plants can be divided in spring just as new growth begins. Ideally the new growth shoots should be only a few inches tall when plants are dug up and divided. Dig existing plants and cut the crown into sections with a sharp knife or shovel. Discard the older inactive portion of the old crown and replant the young vigorous sections as described above. Mature rhubarb plants benefit from division approximately every 4-6 years.

Remove all flower stalks whenever they appear. Note – the appearance of flower stalks does not affect the edibility of the plant’s stems. 

Keep plants well-watered during the establishment year and in future years whenever dry conditions occur. Plants will visibly wilt if conditions get too dry or may go into summer dormancy.

Don’t harvest any stalks during the first growing year to allow plants to become well-established. Image from

Don’t harvest any stalks during the first growing year to allow plants to become well-established. Limit harvest during the second year, but in the third year plants can be harvested all summer starting in May and June. Anytime plants begin to develop only thin and spindly stalks, stop harvesting and allow the plant to grow freely for the rest of the summer to regenerate energy.  

Leaf stalks separate easily from the crown when grasped near the base and pulled. Harvest only the largest and best leaf stalks. Trim the leaves off each stalk and discard them. Only the leaf stalk is suitable for eating. Leaf blades contain a high amount of oxalic acid and should not be eaten. Stalks contain only small amounts, similar to the amounts found in spinach, beet greens and Swiss chard.

Good luck with your rhubarb and happy Thanksgiving!

Feature images from Pixabay. com. 

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