Y’all! It’s almost time for this years’ first harvest of rhubarb!!!
In the back house garden I have two green rhubarb plants side-by-side that provide a steady harvest all from May to Fall. Rhubarb is one of my favorite crops to harvest from our gardens because it means I get to put my love into making something delicious for my family and those around us.
What is rhubarb?
Fun fact, while rhubarb is technically a veggie but it’s often categorized as a fruit because of how it is prepared and served. Looking a lot like celery and ranging from red to pale green, rhubarb has a tart, slightly sweet taste and therefore typically cooked with sugar and fruits, like strawberries, to make jams and baked treats.
Rhubarb is a perennial that requires a cold winter to grow, so it wasn’t too common Texas. I first had rhubarb in college when visiting my Great Aunt Bertha in Washington State. She lived on a country cul-de-sac where she and her neighbors shared a garden (sound familiar?). My Mom and I trekked out to the garden to pick a few stalks then spent the afternoon with her in the kitchen as she taught us her secrets to making rhubarb pie. I don’t remember much about what she said, but I certainly remember there was lots of wine, laughing, and taste testing. I also remember tasting the rhubarb before it was cooked and wondering why the hell Aunt Bert would put it in a pie. That night we ate pie for dessert, went back for seconds and made more pie the next day!
Fast forward about 15 years and I’m walking around the house gardens with Kay, the original owner of our then new home, as she gives me the low down on all the perennials she planted in her 40+ years living her. It was overwhelming trying to consume all the information and knowledge she was spewing out that spring day but as she pointed out what were weeds, what would bloom when, and what we could and couldn’t eat, I was elated to hear her point and the big-leafed green stalky plant and call it rhubarb. I hadn’t recognized it as it is the green variety and not the red rhubarb I had picked with Aunt Bert. Needless to say I was baking rhubarb pie that weekend.
What I’ve Learned About Growing and Harvesting Rhubarb
First off, I am no expert. I mean the first year of harvesting, I used garden shears to cut nearly ALL the stalks at the bottom, even the short little ones. Like a rhubarb buzz cut–rookie move. I was also just letting the plant do it’s thing and flower until Kay told me to stop it. So what can I share?
What Part of the Rhubarb to Eat
First of all, it’s important to know the leaves of rhubarb cannot be eaten, they are poisonous. You can compost them as they break down pretty quickly in the compost process. It’s the stalk of the leaves that you eat. I’ve read the flowering stalks are edible but I haven’t tried them.
Flowering or Bolting Rhubarb
When rhubarb produces flowering stems, this is called bolting (a term I’ve only known for a year or so). These flowers are pretty and don’t harm the plant or taste but do impact your harvest as the plant exhausts energy on the flowing stalks rather than producing more stalks. This means if you want a lot of harvest, your best bet is to remove the flowering stalks with a sharp knife at the base of the plant. Actually, even better is to remove them when they are seed pods, before they become a flowering stalk. I am still working on my confidence in recognizing these seed pods and just staying on top of these stalks.
You’ll want to harvest stalks when they are about 10 inches long. You can either use a sharp knife to cut the stalks at the base, or simply need to grab the stalk toward the base and pull with a twisting motion. Don’t harvest ALL of the stalks at once, like I almost did. This could kill the plant. If your rhubarb plant is new, you’ll need to wait 2 years before harvesting your first harvest to that the plant can become well established. You can keep harvesting those 10″ stalks through the summer and even into the fall but you’ll want to slow down your harvesting after mid July to let your plant store up energy for winter.
Cooking and Baking with Rhubarb
As mentioned before, rhubarb, because of its sour taste is often paired with sugar and fruits. That sweet and tart combination makes it perfect for summer! Honestly, I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to rhubarb. My go-tos are strawberry rhubarb pie and jam but I am looking at expanding my rhubarb recipe collection this year! In the 2 summers I’ve been baking with rhubarb I’d say the pies and jam have definitely become a fan favorite. I always make 2-4 pies at a time and at least 6 jars of jam so there is plenty to share with neighbors and friends. My kids refer to these pies and jams as ‘famous’ and Brian Jr. claims I could profit well at the farmers market. Not sure about that but I’m excited to share these recipes with you this summer.