Growing Concerns: Help your garden survive Whidbey’s wild winds

At this time of year, the Island County-WSU Extension Office expects calls from home gardeners, asking for help identifying strange, red-tinged plants that have mysteriously appeared in their yards. They even pop up in the recently-sodded lawns of new housing developments.

That “mystery plant” is often identified as rhubarb. Long-lived rhubarb may return, year after year, where farmland and kitchen gardens once thrived. Strong and resilient, it apparently can survive even a barrage of bulldozers.

However, the red-stalked plant we associate with delicious pies and sweet-tart sauces can also be a deadly poison to animals and curious toddlers.

Rhubarb stalks are, of course, edible, and loaded with vitamins A and C. The leaves, however, contain levels of oxalic acid that are toxic when ingested in large amounts, either raw or cooked. It’s not likely that any creature (except, perhaps, a goat) would eat large quantities of the raw leaves, but it’s a good idea to take some precautions when growing rhubarb. Trim leaves from the stalks immediately upon harvesting. Wash the stalks well before cooking. Don’t use mushy, frost-bitten stalks, where oxalic acid crystals may concentrate. Don’t allow pets, grazing animals or unsupervised small children in the rhubarb patch.

Rhubarb is a cool-season perennial vegetable that thrives in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, Washington State is the largest commercial producer of rhubarb, followed by Oregon and Michigan. It requires temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit to stimulate development of new buds on the buried crown. As temperatures climb, the wide, frilled leaves burst from the earth and rise on firm, ruby-colored stalks.

For rhubarb lovers, these stalks are the season’s first harvest. Often paired with strawberries and apples, tangy rhubarb is aptly known as “pie plant” in some parts of the country.

While the productive life of the plant is officially listed as eight to 15 years, many a country gardener knows that the hardy rhubarb can live happily for up to 20 years. I lived on the rural acreage of a former farm for more than 20 years. Every year, a renegade rhubarb would spring up amidst the wild grasses of a fallow field. I did nothing to care for this wildling, but it always cheered me to see it, as much a messenger of spring as daffodils and hummingbirds. Of course, a serious rhubarb gardener would not let her plant languish among the weeds!

Spring is the time to start rhubarb plants from rhizomes available at some nurseries, or from a fellow gardener who is willing to divide a clump for you. Like most vegetables, rhubarb prefers a sunny location and well draining soil. Dig a wide planting hole and cultivate into it generous helpings of composted manure and organic fertilizer. Find the protruding crown bud on each rhizome and place it no more than an inch or two beneath the surface. Tuck the soil firmly around the buds and water well. Space your plantings about three feet apart, as a mature rhubarb can grow to four feet in diameter.

Don’t expect to be eating rhubarb pie next spring, however. The plant needs time to build up strong stalks, so wait until the second spring to harvest. Then you can sever the stalks at the soil line all at once, or cut them individually as needed. Don’t worry about composting the toxic leaves. The oxalic acid in the leaves decomposes rapidly and will not contaminate the rest of the compost pile.

Rhubarb is relatively pest and disease free and easy to maintain. The biggest

problem, crown rot, occurs when it’s planted in poorly draining soil. If that’s all you have, consider growing in a raised bed. If flower stalks appear, cut them off, as they sap the plant’s strength.

Rhubarb responds well to regular watering and fertilization. When you notice spring

growth, sprinkle about a cup of 10-10-10 fertilizer around each plant, cultivate it in and water well. In late fall, apply more compost around each plant, but don’t cover the crowns or rot may set in. After the first hard frost, cut off any remaining stalks and compost them. Then count the days until spring and dream of that rhubarb pie!

For more information on rhubarb than you will ever need to know, check out “The Rhubarb Compendium.” You’ll find it at

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