Rhubarb time: on picking, composting, and keeping

Rhubarb, you ubiquitous spring staple, you tart veggie disguised as a fruit, oh how I love you. My rescue from winter food blahs, along with your cohorts, parsnip, asparagus, and spinach; you are destined for desert this very evening.

Early buds pushed up through a late snow this spring in my garden.

If you, like I, are smitten with adoration, here are a few tips for keeping the rhubarb coming.

-You can grow rhubarb from seed, but it’s probably quicker and easier to get some from a willing neighbour. Crowns can be dug and split in the very early spring; just make sure you have a piece with at least one little white or pink bud. Warning: These deeply rooted plants take some elbow grease.

-When the stalks start coming in, harvest just the largest ones first, all the way around the plant. Look for stalks about as thick as your thumb, depending on the variety (and your thumbs). Don’t bother with a knife. Just give a stalk a firm twist and pull and it will pop off the plant.

-You may see some seed heads appear. The stems look similar to the stalks, but go straight up, as opposed to arching out, and have a whitish blob on the top that almost looks like styrofoam. Break it off! Quick! Right now! If you leave it, the blob will open into a flower, and all stalk production will peter out. If you are aiming to collect seed, I guess it’s okay, but if it’s pies you have in mind, stay vigilant. My mature clumps can send up multiple seed heads early in the season.

-Strip those leaves off, because yes indeed, they are poisonous. Though you’d have to eat a lot to make you sick, you don’t want the leaves in your kitchen. Contrary to some ongoing myths though, you really can add the leaves to your compost. That oxalic acid breaks down and thins out pretty fast. I often strip the leaves as I’m harvesting stalks and leave them around the plants as a mulch.

-Wether you prefer jam, crumble, or pie, you may not have time to use your harvest immediately. A quick way to take care of rhubarb is to simply wash it down and chop it into small pieces (say 1/2 inch slices) and toss it in a freezer bag. No blanching or fancy business involved, and it’s ready to go when you are–I’ve been known to make rhubarb jam in the depths of winter. When there’s actually time, you know.


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