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Written by Rhonda Ferree, retired horticulture educator

I love rhubarb! Also known as the pie plant, rhubarb is a very hardy perennial garden vegetable that grows extremely well here. Although considered a vegetable, rhubarb is used as a fruit in pies, tarts, cakes, and sauces.

Rhubarb is available in either red or green stalk varieties. A popular green stalk one is Victoria. More is available in red including Canada Red with long, thick, extra sweet stalks, Cherry Red with red in and out, Crimson Red that is tall and plump, and MacDonald with tender skin and brilliant red color.

If you want to start rhubarb, here are some tips. Plant enough for your family. A half-dozen plants should provide enough rhubarb for most families. Plant or divide rhubarb roots in early spring when the plants are still dormant for best results. You can move small plants now, but don't wait much longer.

Place roots with the crown bud 2 inches below the surface of the soil. Space the roots 36 to 48 inches apart in rows 3 to 4 feet apart. Good drainage is essential. Water new plants properly and keep weeded. Rhubarb doesn't need much additional care once established. If you want to fertilize, use a complete garden fertilizer such as 12-12-12 granules before growth begins in the spring.

Harvest requires a few rules of thumb. Never harvest rhubarb during the first year of planting or too late in the fall. The plants need upper growth to build up healthy and vigorous to make it through the winter. Stalks may be harvested for 1 or 2 weeks during the second year. By the third year, you should get a full harvest of 8 to 10 weeks.

If seedstalks and flowers develop during the spring and summer, cut them from the base of the plant. This will assure the plants put energy into more stalks and not flowers. Leafstalks are the highest quality in early spring, but can be harvested through mid-summer.

Finally, yes, rhubarb can be toxic. In fact the leaves of rhubarb are extremely poisonous. They contain large amounts of oxalic acid and should not be eaten. Also, do not feed rhubarb leaves to animals. Rhubarb stalks (stems) are safe to eat, unless the plants are severely frozen. If rhubarb leaves freeze and leafstalks are "mushy" the oxalic acid may have migrated from the leaf blades to the stems. Additionally, frozen leafstalks have poor texture and flavor and should not be eaten.

More information on growing rhubarb and other vegetables is found at University of Illinois Extension's website The Illinois Vegetable Garden Guide at If you need additional help, please contact me or a Master Gardener at or 309-685-3140Image removed.309-685-3140.



As horticulture educator, Rhonda Ferree inspired citizens in local communities to grow their own food and improve their home landscapes. She focused on high quality, impactful programs that taught homeowners how to create energy-efficient landscapes using sustainable practices that increase property values and help the environment.

After 30 years with University of Illinois Extension, Rhonda retired in 2018. She continues to share her passion for horticulture related topics as “Retro Rhonda” on social media.

ILRiverHort is a blog that helps people connect to nature and grow.

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