Harvesting Rhubarb: Tips and Techniques for a Bountiful Crop

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You know how delicious it can be if you’re lucky enough to have a rhubarb plant in your garden. With its tangy flavor and vibrant color, rhubarb is a favorite of many home gardeners and cooks (including us!). However, harvesting rhubarb can be intimidating if you’ve never done it before. Fortunately, with a few simple tips and techniques, you can easily harvest rhubarb and enjoy the bounty of your plants all season long.

In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about how to harvest rhubarb, including when to harvest, how to harvest without damaging the plant, and how to store and freeze your harvest for later use. 

Freshly harvested rhubarb resting on a rustic wooden cutting board.
Table of Contents

    Why Everyone Should Have at Least One Rhubarb Plant in Their Vegetable Garden.

    Rhubarb is a big beautiful plant with large, leafy green stalks and a tart, tangy flavor that needs to be counterbalanced with sweetness. When that balance between sweet and tart happens, it’s a magical flavor. 

    Rhubarb is a popular crop for home gardeners because it’s easy to grow, requires minimal maintenance, and produces bountiful harvests for many years. Rhubarb can be used in various sweet and savory dishes, from jams and pies (hello, strawberry rhubarb pie!) to sauces and stews. It’s also a great source of vitamins and minerals.

    It’s almost impossible to kill a rhubarb plant. I’ve grown them in zone 2b, where winters were -40F, and the plants grew bigger and better every year. I’ve over-harvested, underwatered, overwatered, and my rhubarb plants forgive me every time.

    Piles of freshly harvested rhubarb bundled with elastics.
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    Benefits of Growing Rhubarb Plants

    There are numerous benefits to growing and harvesting rhubarb. Here are a few of the most compelling reasons why home gardeners might consider adding rhubarb to their gardens:

    Easy to Grow: Rhubarb is a low-maintenance plant that requires little attention once established. It’s also relatively disease-resistant and hardy, meaning it can survive in various growing conditions.

    High Yield: Rhubarbs are productive perennial plants, each producing several pounds of stalks yearly. This makes it an excellent choice for home gardeners looking to maximize their harvests in smaller spaces.

    Versatile: Rhubarb can be used in various dishes, from sweet desserts to savory stews. This versatility makes it a valuable ingredient to have on hand in the kitchen.

    Nutritious: Rhubarb is a good source of vitamins C and K, calcium, and fiber. It’s also low in calories and fat, making it a healthy addition to any diet.

    Cost-Effective: Buying fresh rhubarb at the grocery store can be expensive, but growing it home can be much more cost-effective. This is especially true for those who plan to freeze or can their rhubarb for use throughout the year.

    • Learn More: We have several harvesting tip posts that new gardeners might find helpful:
    Rhubarb plants growing in a vegetable kitchen garden.

    When to Start and Stop Harvesting Rhubarb

    There are a few tips and tricks to know when to stop and when to start harvesting rhubarb from the garden:

    When Is Rhubarb Season?

    Rhubarb season starts between April and June, depending on your location. It’s essential to wait until the rhubarb plant is well-established and has had at least one growing season before harvesting. In most cases, you should wait until the stalks are 10-15 inches long before harvesting.

    You will want to avoid harvesting rhubarb stalks in the fall. Fall harvests can weaken the plant and reduce its yield for the following growing season.

    How To Tell Rhubarb Is Ready For Harvest

    The best way to know when rhubarb is ready to harvest is to look for stalks that are thick, firm, and have reached at least 10-15 inches.

    The stalks should also be a bright, deep red, indicating they are fully ripe and have the highest sugar content.

    To check if the stalks are ready to harvest, grab hold of the stalk near the base and gently twist and pull it away from the plant. If it comes out easily, it’s ready to be harvested.

    Tips for Determining When it’s Time to Stop Harvesting Rhubarb for the Season

    Generally, it’s best to stop harvesting rhubarb by the end of June or when the stalks become noticeably thinner than when you started harvesting.

    Rhubarb plant in the garden. Close up.  The stalks are thick and red enough to start harvesting.

    How to Harvest Rhubarb

    For the best way to harvest rhubarb without damaging the plant, follow these simple steps:

    1. Wait until the rhubarb stalks are at least 10-15 inches long and have a bright, deep red color.
    2. Firmly grab hold of the stalk near the base with one hand, and use your other hand to twist and pull the stalk away from the plant gently. Be sure to pull the stalk straight up and away from the plant rather than bending it or pulling it to the side.

    Why You Should Never Cut Rhubarb Stalks

    While it is possible to cut rhubarb stalks away from the plant using a sharp knife or pruning shears, it’s generally not recommended. Cutting the stalks can damage the plant and leave it vulnerable to pests and diseases.

    When you cut a rhubarb stalk, it leaves behind a stub that can attract insects and pathogens. Cutting the stalk can also damage the surrounding plant tissue, making it more susceptible to fungal or bacterial infections.

    Instead of cutting the stalks, it’s best to grab hold of the stalk near the base and gently twist and pull it away from the plant. This method is less likely to cause damage to the plant and will leave it better equipped to continue producing healthy, abundant stalks throughout the growing season.

    Freshly harvested rhubarb on a cutting board.

    Can you Eat Rhubarb Leaves?

    No, it would be best if you did not eat rhubarb leaves. Rhubarb leaves, unfortunately, contain high levels of oxalic acid, which can be toxic to humans and lead to serious health problems like kidney failure, seizures, and even death.

    The stalks of the rhubarb plant are safe to eat, but the leaves should always be discarded. If you accidentally consume rhubarb leaves or suspect someone has, seek medical attention immediately.

    Storing Harvested Rhubarb

    After the rhubarb harvest, it’s essential to keep it fresh and store it properly to ensure it stays tasty and crisp for as long as possible. Here are some ways to keep rhubarb fresh, as well as tips for storing and freezing:

    Keeping Rhubarb Fresh:

    To keep rhubarb fresh, rinse the stalks with cool water and dry them thoroughly with a clean towel. Once dry, wrap the stalks in a damp paper towel and store them in a plastic bag or airtight container in the refrigerator. Rhubarb can be stored in the fridge for up to two weeks.

    Freezing Rhubarb:

    You can easily freeze cleaned and chopped rhubarb for up to a year. If you have an abundant harvest and little time, chopping and freezing is a quick and easy way to put away pounds of fresh rhubarb for winter.

    One of my favorite ways to freeze rhubarb is to cook it down into a compote before freezing. Simmer the chopped rhubarb with sugar and water until it becomes soft and thick.

    Let the compote cool, and then transfer it to a freezer-safe container. The compote makes a great sauce for pancakes or waffles, over yogurt or ice cream, and you can use it to make pies, crisps, and other baked goods.

    Lovely bright red perfect stalks of rhubarb tied together with a rustic piece of twine.

    Using Harvested Rhubarb

    Rhubarb is a wonderfully versatile ingredient used in various sweet and savory dishes. Here are some popular ways to use rhubarb in the kitchen:

    • Pies and tarts: One of the most popular ways to use rhubarb is in pies and tarts. Rhubarb’s tart flavor pairs well with sweet berries, apples, and other fruits to create wildly unique taste profiles.
    • Jams and compotes: Rhubarb can be cooked into a sweet, tangy jam or compote that is perfect for spreading on toast or serving with cheese and crackers or for pouring over pancakes, waffles, or ice cream.
    • Desserts: Rhubarb can be used in various desserts, including cakes, crisps, and crumbles, muffins, tarts, ice creams (most fruit desserts can be turned into rhubarb desserts!)
    • Sauces: Rhubarb can be cooked into a savory sauce that pairs well with meat dishes like pork and chicken. It also makes a wonderfully delicious BBQ sauce!!
    • Cocktails: Rhubarb syrup can make refreshing cocktails, like the classic Rhubarb Gin Fizz.
    Rhubarb pie with pieces of rhubarb placed on top and glazed with apricot jelly.

    Does Picking Rhubarb Encourage Growth?

    Picking rhubarb can encourage growth. When you harvest rhubarb, you are removing the stalks that are mature and no longer producing. Removing these stalks encourages the plant to produce new stalks, leading to a healthier and more productive plant.

    In addition, removing the mature stalks prevents the plant from putting energy into producing seeds, which can also benefit growth. It’s important to note that you should only harvest rhubarb stalks that are thick and mature, and you should leave the smaller stalks to grow and mature for future harvests.

    A pile of bright red rhubarb on a bright white background.

    What To Do When Rhubarb Makes a Flower Stalk

    When rhubarb plants produce flowers, it is a sign that the plant is starting to bolt or go to seed. This can be a natural part of the plant’s life cycle, but it can also signal a problem with its growth and development.

    Removing flower stalks as soon as possible is essential if your rhubarb plant produces flowers. Allowing the flowers to develop will cause the plant to go to seed and can divert energy from producing the edible stalks, which can reduce the overall yield of the plant. To remove the flowers, twist the stalks off at the base of the plant, being careful not to damage the plant’s crown or leaves.

    It’s also essential to evaluate the health and growth of your rhubarb plant to see if it is producing flowers. Rhubarb plants that produce flowers too early in the season or that have a reduced yield of stalks may be stressed or lacking in nutrients. To address these issues, you may need to fertilize the soil or adjust the plant’s growing conditions, such as increasing the amount of sunlight or water the plant receives.

    Rhubarb bolting with a central flower stem going to seed.

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