Rhubarb is a perennial vegetable that you will want to add to your own garden and knowing how to harvest rhubarb can make a big difference in the health of this plant. This edible plant is commonly used in baked goods. It has a sour, bitter taste, so more often than not, rhubarb gets cooked with a bunch of sugar. Rhubarb has large leaves and thick stalks that resemble celery.
The only edible part of the rhubarb plant is the stalks. The leaves of the rhubarb plant cannot be eaten. Keep reading to learn when and how to pick rhubarb for a bountiful harvest in your rhubarb season.
Where does Rhubarb grow?
If you come to South Dakota in late May and early June, you will more than likely get some sort of rhubarb baked good thrown in your face. The reason for that is that this food is excellent for cold climates. Rhubarb needs a cooler climate so the winter temperatures are perfect. All rhubarb varieties can survive the harshest winters. As soon as spring temperatures hit, rhubarb comes out of dormancy and the season begins!
As long as you have a cold winter and place the rhubarb plants in full sun, you can expect rhubarb to grow.
When to Pick Rhubarb
If you just planted a rhubarb plant, wait at least one year before harvesting for the first time. If the rhubarb plant is well established, usually by the third year, it’s time to pick when the stalks are at least 7 inches long.
This will usually be during the early spring months of May and June. After that, it’s a good idea to leave the plant alone so that it can regrow. If you would like to extend the harvesting season though, cut any flower stalks away before they bloom. The flowering takes energy away from the plant, so to keep the stems growing good, you should cut away any flowering stalk with a sharp knife the moment you see it, even if you don’t plan on extending the harvesting season. In reality, you can harvest rhubarb all the way into the fall. However, for the sake of the plant, don’t go past June.
How to Harvest Rhubarb
When it is harvest time, find a stalk on the rhubarb plant that is ready to be harvested. Look for firm and crisp rhubarb stalks. Personally, I go for the dark red stalks first. Those are sweeter and seem to have the best flavor. However, green stalks are good to use too.
Morning time is the best time to harvest rhubarb. The stalks will be juicy and stay fresh longer.
Here is what you really need to know about harvesting rhubarb. Do NOT cut the rhubarb. Twisting is the best way to harvest.
When you twist the rhubarb off, it comes from the root and the rhubarb will start working on replacing it, giving you a higher yielding harvest in the future. Cutting the rhubarb leaves part of the stalk left and that can start rotting the rhubarb roots.
Twisting the Rhubarb Stalks
Find the biggest stalks first. Grab the stalk at the bottom in one fluid motion, twist and pull the stalk up, leaning slightly to the side. The stalk will separate from the root. If the rhubarb does not come easily, try leaning to the other side and twisting again.
If the whole plant comes out of the ground when you pull the stalk out, pack more soil firmly around the roots of the rhubarb plant. Make sure there is no bare root visible.
After harvesting the stalks, cut the leaves completely off and toss them into a compost bin or compost pile. The leaves contain a high concentration of oxalic acid that can make you sick, however the composting will break that down and it will be fine to add into your home garden. It is in large quantities of poisonous oxalic acid that you need to worry about. In the spring and summer, the rhubarb stalks do not contain any oxalic acid, so those are perfectly fine to eat as long as you remove the leaves.
When harvesting your rhubarb, leave at least ⅓ of the plant so that more will grow back next year.
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How to Store Harvested Rhubarb
- In the refrigerator: Leave the stalks whole if possible, and the rhubarb will last about 2 weeks. If you don’t have room to leave the stalks whole, wrap the bottom of the rhubarb with a slightly damp paper towel and place in a plastic bag or mason jar.
- In the freezer: Cut rhubarb into small pieces, about ½ inch wide. Freeze on a baking sheet and then place into freezer bags. Frozen rhubarb should last about a year. The food saver bags really help keep frozen rhubarb from getting freezer burnt.
- Dehydrate: Cut rhubarb into small pieces and follow the instructions on your dehydrator or dehydrate in the oven. Dehydrated rhubarb lasts about a year.
- Canning: Rhubarb can be canned in a few different ways. Check out the Ball Book of Canning for recipes.
Is rhubarb ripe when green?
Depending on the variety of rhubarb you have, it will be a different color when it is ripe. So, you cannot base ripeness on the color of the rhubarb stalks.
When should I stop picking rhubarb?
To build a strong rhubarb plant for the following year, it is best to stop picking rhubarb at the end of June. This allows plenty of time for the rhubarb plant to build some energy reserves.
Stop picking when about ⅔ of the plant is harvested.
Can I harvest rhubarb in the fall?
While you can technically harvest rhubarb in the fall, it is not recommended for the health of the plant. Stop harvesting in the summer months for a healthier rhubarb plant the following spring.