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The Vegetable We Eat Sweet

Grow a patch of rhubarb

My old friend Bill Burton and I once discussed eating freshly harvested rhubarb as kids during hot summer days in New England, where every home had a rhubarb patch in the backyard. Bill raved about his mother’s rhubarb-custard pie, while I raved about my mother’s strawberry-rhubarb pie. I can still picture myself sitting on the back stairs of our home with a fist full of sugar in my left hand and a freshly harvested stalk of rhubarb in my right. Before each bite, I would dredge the base of the rhubarb stem in the sugar.
    Those were the days.
    Rhubarb is a vegetable, not a fruit, although we tend to limit its use to making desserts. One of the great features of rhubarb is that it can be blended with other fruit such as strawberries, blueberries, apples, pears and apricots as the rhubarb absorbs the taste of the fruit. In other words, you can make a tasty blueberry pie using only one cup of blueberries and two cups of chopped rhubarb.
    Rhubarb grows best in well-drained soil in full sun. It can tolerate partial shade, but it will produce spindly stems. Since you consume only the stem, the fleshier the stem the better. Never eat the leaves because they contain oxalic acid, which will cause swelling of the tongue.
    I have seldom seen rhubarb sold in a garden center, though it is commonly listed in seed catalogs. If you order rhubarb for your garden, you will receive in the mail what appears to be a dried-up brown stub. For best results, place it in a cup of water for five days before planting.
    There are various clones of rhubarb with stems ranging from green to various shades of green to red and red only. There is even a clone labeled Strawberry-rhubarb. I can assure you that it does not have a strawberry flavor.
    Rhubarb likes mildly acid soil with a moderate amount of organic matter. When planting rhubarb, I dig a hole the size of a half-bushel basket and add two to three shovels-full of compost and a handful of agricultural limestone, then mix thoroughly.
    Allow the rhubarb to grow without harvesting for at least two years before pulling your first stems. During your first harvest on the third year of growth, remove no more than half of the stems at any one time and allow one month between harvests.
    If you see a flower head develop in the center of the clump, remove it with a sharp knife two to three inches from the ground. Allowing the plant to produce seeds during the first three years of growth will weaken the clump.
    Never try growing rhubarb in a large container or in a raised bed. The roots are sensitive to high temperatures, which will cause the plant to die in mid-summer as rooting media rises in above-ground containers or beds.


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