NDSU Extension - Mercer County

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A Gardener’s Friend

rhubarb

Submitted by Dena Kemmet, Extension Agent/Family and Community Wellness

It’s officially rhubarb season in North Dakota! I know this because I’ve seen photos on Facebook of people using rhubarb to make slushes, pies, bars, etc.

Rhubarb is one of the first crops you can harvest every spring. Rhubarb is easy to grow and can stand considerable neglect and still be there the following spring. Two or three rhubarb plants are usually adequate for the average family.

Rhubarb is one of the most reliable and delicious crops you can grow. It is always there for you, sitting in the corner of the garden. Rhubarb is known as "pie plant" because it is used in desserts. It provides vitamins A and C, potassium and fiber, but because of its tartness, it requires a fair amount of added sugar.

The “pie plant” doesn’t get any special care. Maybe it doesn’t get ANY care. And yet every spring it produces rosy red stalks that make a great pie!

Rhubarb is technically not a fruit, but we use it like a fruit. It adds tart flavor to pies, sauces, jams and breads. It can be used in making wines and juices, too.

Rhubarb grows well in cool climates. It even tolerates minus 20 degrees F temperatures during Midwestern winters.

If you recently planted rhubarb, you will need to be patient. You shouldn't pick any rhubarb the first year, but you can harvest your rhubarb crop lightly the second year. By the third year, you can enjoy plenty of rhubarb-based recipes.

The best time to harvest rhubarb is when the stalks of the leaves reach at least 10 inches long. This will ensure that the plant has established itself well enough for the year to be able to tolerate being  harvested. Contrary to popular belief, the entire rhubarb plant does not become toxic later in the summer. It may become stringy and tough, though, so the best time to pick rhubarb is during early summer.

Harvest rhubarb until the Fourth of July. After that, let the new stalks alone. Stalks need to produce energy that will replenish the crown for next year’s harvest. If you get a special craving for strawberry rhubarb pie, you can cut a few stalks in summer. These stalks will be less tender, but are still edible.

To freeze rhubarb to enjoy through the winter, choose tender stalks, then wash and cut. You can freeze rhubarb with or without blanching, which is a brief boiling in water. If you blanch for one minute in boiling water, you will have better flavor and color retention.

You can compost the leaves similar to other yard waste. Don't be worried about the oxalic acid because as the leaves decompose, the oxalic acid breaks down. It does not inhibit the microbial action of composting. You can use the composted material safely in your garden later, but keep kids and pets out of the composting bin for many reasons.

Source: Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., NDSU Extension food and nutrition specialist; Tom Kalb, NDSU Extension Horticulturist

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