How to grow rhubarb

Delicious rhubarb, hand-picked Credit: Alamy

Rhubarbis enjoying a revival in popularity and now is a great time to plant. It is very easy to grow and in about 18 months you could be enjoying the first fruits of your labour.

  • Buy bare-rooted “crowns” or beg divisions from neighbours. Plant in a sunny spot (although rhubarb will tolerate a little shade).
  • Thoroughly clear weeds and improve the soil, digging in generous quantities of garden compost or well-rotted manure. Plant crowns about 3-4ft apart with the buds just covered.
  • In spring, apply a mulch of manure with a handful or two of Growmore or blood, fish and bone around each plant. In dry weather, water thoroughly once a week.
  •  In the first year, allow plants to establish. From the second spring, take a small harvest of new stalks for about six weeks, pulling, not cutting them away.
  • After that, plants can be picked regularly for several months from April, but take no more than half the stalks at once. Rhubarb leaves are poisonous but can be added to the compost heap.
  • Stop picking in July to allow plants to recover for the following year. Divide clumps every five years or so and remove any flower stems.
  • A single clump is sufficient for most families but if you have space for two or three, it gives the opportunity to “force” plants for extra-early, tender pickings. Place straw over a selected clump in late winter and put a large upturned bucket or terracotta forcer (see left) on top to exclude the light. In the warm, dark confines, plants will produce tender, sweet pink stalks early, about a month before open ground plants. Forced clumps need a year off to recover.
  • Rhubarb is trouble-free but crown rot can develop where soils are waterlogged in winter. Thin, spindly stems, sometimes split, and oozing sap are usually a sign of stress. Water, feed and divide clumps if necessary.

Rhubarb varieties: your need to know

  • Pick stalks of early cultivars from late March to early April. The second earlies begin to crop from early May.
  • 'Timperley Early’ (early). Good tart flavour. Stems deep red to light green with red flecking.
  • 'Hawke’s Champagne’ (early to mid). Old variety with currant-red stems and a sweet flavour. Reliable, ideal for forcing.
  • 'Grandad’s Favourite’ (mid-season). Produces a heavy crop of attractive brightly coloured stems.
  • 'Raspberry Red’ (mid to late). A heavy cropping old Dutch variety with sweet red stems.
  • 'Fulton’s Strawberry Surprise’ (midseason to late). Bright red stems. Voted best flavour in Wisley trials. 'Mac Red’ and 'Stein’s Champayne’ have AGMs but you may struggle to source them. See RHS Plant Finder for more information