By Skip Richter, Travis County Extension Director
Mention growing rhubarb around a Texas gardener and you’ll probably get a look something like either “what’s that” or “where are you from.” I have read more than once that you can’t grow rhubarb down here because it is too hot! Well folks that just ain’t true. You can grow rhubarb in Texas. It won’t be foolproof, but it is very doable. In the northern gardens it is grown as a perennial and harvested from late spring through summer, depending on the location. Southern gardeners who have purchased plants (dormant roots) or otherwise tried to grow this vegetable as a perennial have failed dismally as the infernal heat of summer combines with fungal rot organisms to deal it a fatal blow. The key is to rethink the plant’s traditional culture and to grow it as an annual. What we call winter here in most of Texas, rhubarb calls sporadic cold snaps. It can be grown in most of the state from August to May and then discarded to make room for some other heat loving vegetable.
Prepare the garden soil well prior to setting the transplants out into the garden. Rhubarb is fairly tolerant of a wide soil pH range. I have seen it do well in the acid sands of East Texas and the high pH clays of central Texas. It is beneficial however to mix several inches of Lady Bug Revitalizer, Farm Style or Turkey Compost into the soil and to plant on raised beds to facilitate drainage.
The plants respond well to fertilization, so select 4-1-2 ratio product (such as Lady Bug 8-2-4) and mix in 2 to 4 cups per 100 square feet of garden bed area prior to planting. Watering is critical after transplanting. The plants need to stay fairly moist, but not soggy wet. Rhubarb is susceptible to several fungal rots and if you overwater the plants they will quickly succumb to stem and crown rots, and die. As the weather moves into the mild days of fall, rhubarb plants will slowly start to take off. Fertilize them monthly from September through April with 1 cup Lady Bug 8-2-4.
While the plants can take considerable cold, a hard freeze will damage the above ground leaves and petioles. For this reason some protection on very cold nights is worthwhile. By late winter to spring the plants will resume rapid growth. This is the time when harvest may begin. In Texas rhubarb reaches a respectable size by about March or April and can be harvested on through May. The edible portions of the plant are the elongated and thickened leaf stalks. Grasp a leaf stalk and pull sideways. They break off easily. Or if you wish you can cut them off. Immediately trim off the leaves leaving just the stalk. Then take the stalks inside to wash and refrigerate them. I prefer to harvest in the morning as the leaves wilt rapidly in the heat of the day.
I should note here that only the stalks are to be eaten, NOT the leaves on the end of the stalks. Rhubarb leaves contain oxalic acid at levels that can be harmful. However, while the leaves contain high concentrations of this compound, the levels found in the stalks are very low and not considered hazardous. For that matter, oxalic acid is also found in low levels in many other vegetables we eat including spinach, cabbage, beet greens, and to some degree potatoes and peas. Some references indicate that stalks with cold damage (soggy soft areas) or those with significant frost damage to their leaves should also be avoided, but this situation is more common on fall harvested rhubarb in the north and is generally not seen here in Texas during our spring harvest time.
Our Texas grown rhubarb will generally be more green than red in color. This is partially due to our warm climate, partially because the reddest varieties are not available from seed, and also because our Texas plants are seedlings and therefore have considerable genetic variability. But they are quite productive and the quality is fine.
Rhubarb is not eaten fresh but rather is cooked in pies, tarts and sauces. The most famous dish of course is strawberry rhubarb pie. By a fortuitous coincidence only explained as divine design our Texas rhubarb season and strawberry season run concurrently. So you can plant a strawberry-rhubarb patch this fall and enjoy a great harvest in spring.
For a wealth of information on growing and preserving rhubarb, and on using rhubarb in great culinary creations with many wonderful recipe ideas, check out the following web site: http://www.rhubarbinfo.com.
So if you are a bit adventurous and like to try new things in the garden consider adding some rhubarb to your fall gardening plans.