Tempting though it may be, if you have newly planted rhubarb plants you do not harvest any stems during the first season as this will seriously weaken the plant. You need to allow the plant grow during its first year and establish a good healthy root system.

During the second season, you can harvest only a few stems, ensuring that you only pull two per plant at any one time. Make sure that five healthy stems always remain.

The stalks are ready to harvest once the leaves are fully open so you are looking to take stems from May to August.

Harvesting stops by the end of August to give the rhubarb plant a chance to recover its strength before winter arrives.

Rhubarb stalks are harvested by gently twisting the stems and pulling from the base of the plant. Rhubarb leaves shouldn't be eaten as they contain oxalic acid and are poisonous.

The history of Rhubarb

Rhubarb is a truly ancient food that was introduced into Europe via trade routes from China. Botanically-known as Rheum rhabarbarum, its name comes from a combination of the Greek word Rha for the Volga River, and the Latin word barbarum, the region of the Rha River inhabited by non-Romans (barbarians).

The earliest records for this plant date back to China in 2700 BC when Rhubarb was cultivated for medicinal use, however it was the more popular, edible species Rheum rhaponticum that came to be introduced to Europe by the Italian botanist, Prosper Alpinus in 1608. Strangely, it wasn't until 1778 that rhubarb was officially recorded as a food plant.

Unfortunately today, Rhubarb is more viewed as a ‘paupers’ food, even though it was once a highly valuable commercial crop, especially during the opium wars of 1839 to 1842 and 1856 to 1860. This was a trade dispute between China under the Qing Dynasty and the British Empire caused by the British smuggling opium from British India into China in defiance of China's drug laws.

Rhubarb and the British

Image credit - http://davidincoll.tripod.com/
With imported Rhubarb now in short supply, the Victorian gardeners began selectively propagating those varieties available which gave fleshy edible stems. Although still sharp to taste, they found that they could be improved significantly by growing them in darkness - this was discovered by chance when a Chelsea gardener left a chimney pot over one of his plants.

This forced growing of the Rhubarb caused the sugar to acid ratio to change dramatically, producing a sweeter 'fruit', but only from late winter and through to the early spring. This forced rhubarb was infinitely more palatable than the outdoor garden variety and became something of a delicacy. Even today, the best quality stems – known as Grade One and Crimson Crown grade (a premium grade bestowed only on the finest stalks) - are still coveted by top chefs.

Growing Rhubarb

It's best to try and grow rhubarb in full sun, but it is fairly tolerant of partial shade. In fact, rhubarb can remain in the same position for up to 10 years, so be aware when choosing its position that the soil immediately surrounding the plant cannot be dug.

Luckily, Rhubarb is tolerant of most soil conditions, but will grow best in a neutral soil which has been dug to a depth of 2 ft or more. Incorporate as much organic matter as possible during the digging because it must last the life of the plant. Remember that rhubarb will not tolerate soil disturbance once established. The site should be prepared about 4 weeks in advance of planting in order to give it time to settle.

Be especially careful to remove all weeds at the preparation stage as it will be very difficult to get rid of them once rhubarb is planted,

Rhubarb can be grown either from seed or as plants purchased from your garden centre. The problem with rhubarb grown from seed is that it takes a year longer to produce stalks and even then, the plants are not guaranteed to be true to type. This can make it a bit of a gamble which will take three years before you know if you have succeeded or failed.

Rhubarb plants are available all year round at some garden centres, although by far the best time to plant rhubarb is late autumn to early winter - December is a good month.

Prepare the soil as described previously, and dig a hole a little bit wider than the plant. The depth should be such that the top of the plant is 1 inch below the soil surface. Fill in around the plant with soil, gently firming it down to ensure no air pockets remain. Water well if the conditions are dry. Spread a mulch - garden compost or other well-rotted organic material - around the plants, but not directly above where the crown will emerge in a month or so.

Three plants should be sufficient to meet most needs - the spacing between plants should be about 2 ft 6 in for varieties such as Cawood Delight, Victoria, Ruby and Canada Red. However, some varieties such as 'The Sutton' will need a wider spacing of about 4ft.

Rhubarb require very little care, but if you give them that care they will produce much finer stalks than neglected plants.

Every year after the leaves have died down, spread a new layer of garden compost or other well-rotted organic material around (but not touching the plants.

This will conserve water and prevent weeds. In warm, dry periods give the plants a good watering, although this should only be required occasionally. In February , sprinkle a handful of general fertiliser around the plants. Remove any weeds as they appear.

The only other attention required is to cut off flower heads which may appear in early spring as the new rhubarb stalks emerge. Do this as soon as possible - if the flower head is left to grow and set seed, the plant will never fully recover to good strength.

For further information on the history of plants click onto:
What is Rhubarb Poisoning?
When do you harvest Broccoli
When do you pick Rhubarb
Based on an article from http://www.gardenaction.co.uk/fruit_veg_diary/fruit_veg_mini_project_september_1b_rhubarb.asp
Images care of http://www.cherrymenlove.com/my-garden/2011/03/how-to-grow-rhubarb.html and http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/allotment/2010/dec/01/allotments-gardeningadvice and http://www.quickcrop.co.uk/blog/ and http://history.cultural-china.com/en/183History5517.html

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