Thursday, June 13, 2013

Rhubarb Confessions

If you've read my book, you might have noticed a glaring omission: I don't mention rhubarb...at all. (At least not that I remember.) Well, I have a confession to make. I've been holding out, but now is the time to admit...I have never grown rhubarb. It's true. I've lived in the Midwest most of my life, and for some unknown reason it has never shown up in a garden I've tended. For my own part, that's probably because A) I've never lived in one place long enough to reap the benefits or B) the places I've lived haven't really lended themselves well to this perennial mainstay (an apartment, a houseboat, and now a National Park). That said, I love baking with rhubarb, so I am often the happy recipient of colorful stalks from friends and family.

Rhubarb's beautiful red petioles, about to join strawberries in a delicious baked crumble. Photo from grit.com
Now, if you're a Midwestern gardener, there's probably little I need to say to convince you that rhubarb is a great plant for the home landscape, because it's most likely already there (and has been for generations, or has followed your family from house to house if the stories I hear are true). So I'm writing this to convince myself as much as anyone else (although living in a National Park I won't be planting it in my yard any time soon - they have rules about things like that).

Rhubarb is the perfect perennial for the Northern garden because it pops up before just about anything else in the spring, and it actually loves cold temperatures. The Michigan Bulb Company says this to describe 'Victoria' rhubarb:  "Thrives best in regions with cool, moist summers and winters cold enough to freeze to a depth of several inches." Music to my Northern ears. Rhubarb will grow in just about any soil, can handle some shade, has very few pest problems, is harvested in June while most other garden plants are just getting going, and will produce for years and years. What's not to like? What's more, it's a great space filler, and looks spectacular. It is distinctly reminiscent of Swiss chard with it's large glossy leaves and deep red petioles, so naturally I'm a fan.

Rhubarb makes a great mass planting in the landscape. There's a lot of green in those big fleshy leaves, so add some color with bright ornamentals, or keep it subtle by combining rhubarb with various greens and other deep hues. You don't necessarily need bright color to make things interesting. Harmonious and subdued colors are pretty dang classy, as you can see here.

Famed edible landscaper Rosalind Creasy captured this lovely rhubarb combo at the Denver Botanical Garden. Great subtle mix of rhubarb, oregano, parsley and amaranth.

There are countless sources on growing rhubarb, and they're pretty straightforward because it's just about the easiest perennial to grow. Check out a few of these sources if you're just getting started. It's not too late to get rhubarb started this year. It needs a year to grow before you start harvesting anyway, so pick a big empty spot in the garden and get some in there.

And if you're a bit limited on space as I am, take a look at the links below that talk about growing rhubarb in containers. There aren't a whole lot of people talking about this, but I'm getting some started this season in a couple large containers to give it a try. Overwintering potted perennials is always the tricky part because they need to get cold to enter dormancy, but could be damaged because the roots are basically exposed to air temperature. I have access to a cold cellar space which could prove to be perfect for overwintering potted rhubarb. I might also try wrapping one of my rhubarb containers with some straw and burlap. I'll let you know what happens. 

Now that's a big container.
Photo borrowed from The Enduring Gardener.


Have you grown rhubarb in a container? Got any tricks? Leave a comment if you're willing to share your secrets.

Info on Growing Rhubarb

People Growing Rhubarb in Containers



Happy growing,

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