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For 1987 rhubarb pies, plant rhubarb roots this month.

For 1987 rhubarb pies, plant rhubarb roots this month

Rhubarb's an eye-catcher in any garden. Its leaves are huge (18 inches wide by 24 inches long is not uncommon), deep green, and wavy at the edges. They are supported by succulent red or green stalks, forming a striking, mound-shaped plant 3 to 4 feet high. The stalks are edible and can be used in pies, sauces, and chutneys. The leaves are poisonous; always discard them.

In most climates, rhubarb is a long-lived perennial that produces its most succulent stems during cool weather. In the desert, treat rhubarb as a winter annual (heat rots plants); set out in fall for a winterspring harvest.

In mild-winter regions, you can plant dormant roots this month (look for them in nurseries). You might also find some small plants in 1-gallon cans. The most common red-stemmed varieties include "Cherry' ("Crimson Cherry'), "MacDonald', and "Strawberry'. "Victoria' has greenish stems.

Planting and care

Plant rhubarb in full sun (some shade in hot inland areas) in rich, well-drained soil. When planting in rows, keep 3 to 4 feet between plants. Three plants are plenty for a rhubarb-loving family of four. Plant dormant crowns just below the soil level, but leave the papery tops and pink buds exposed. Crowns will probably rot if planted too deep. Water sparingly until crowns start to grow--too much moisture at this stage could also cause them to rot. Once growth starts, keep soil moist.

Harvesting the stalks

Don't pick any stalks the first year. The second season, harvest a few stalks over a four- to five-week period in spring. The third year, you can harvest mature plants over a period of about eight weeks.

To harvest, grasp stalk near the base and pull to the side with an upward, twisting motion (a knife cut can leave a short stub that might rot). Don't harvest all stalks at once: this could rob the crown of energy needed for producing more leaves. Flower stalks should also be removed.

Most places, rhubarb goes dormant in fall. In warm-winter areas of Southern California, you may have to slow plants down to give them a needed rest; if so, hold back water for two months in midsummer. In early fall, resume watering and apply a complete fertilizer. You should be able to begin harvesting again in about two months. Elsewhere, feed just before early-spring growth begins.

If a mature plant slacks off and begins producing small, thin stalks (usually after four years or so), dig and divide the dormant crowns, leaving at least one bud per division.

If you get too much rhubarb, cut extra stalks into small pieces and freeze them in plastic bags for later use.

Photo: Bold and tropical-looking, leaves on 15-year-old rhubarb plant form 3-foot-high mound
COPYRIGHT 1986 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Feb 1, 1986
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