Monday, April 21, 2014

Rhubarb: Fail

Wait! Sometimes it doesn’t work.
When I was a kid we had a couple of rhubarb plants in our yard. I have no idea when they were planted - they had been there for as long as I could remember: leafy, green and red pieces of my childhood landscape as eternal and immobile as the sky-blue waters of Lake Superior.

Those rhubarb plants demanded no maintenance, no trimming or thinning or weeding. Year after year they provided sour stalks for rhubarb cakes and pale wines and for the kinds of makeshift swords that brothers are wont to stripe each other with on hot summer days. Every yard in Minnesota, it seemed, had one or more. No one ever spent any time or effort trying to make it grow.*

Once I started looking for easy preps, it didn’t take long to discover perennials, those plant-'em-once, harvest-'em-forever wonders that every noob gardener should begin with. Horseradish I had already, and I added asparagus right away. Jerusalem artichokes I planted later, after years of trying to convince myself they might be edible. All of those are doing fine, though none grow quite as well as my horseradish. But the fourth perennial is rhubarb, and I just can’t make it grow here in Kansas.

Horseradish: Win
Oh, I’ve tried. My first attempt was a decade or more ago when I transplanted some roots from Mom’s surviving plant.** They sprang up for a month or so, then died in late May. I re-planted with a strain supposedly more heat tolerant - they never did anything. I’ve raised the PH balance of the soil and lowered it, grown them in full sun and partial sun, mulched them and exposed them, watered them and neglected them. This year I sprouted some from seed, planted a dozen small crowns, and even purchased a trio of foot-long monster crowns from a Kentucky farm where the leaves grow as thick as tobacco. That browning, 3-inch leaf is the sole result. Rhubarb is fatally allergic to Kansas.

So I’ve officially given up on it. Not because I don’t want to grow rhubarb, but because there are better places where one can spend limited time and effort. Some things work and others don’t, and one's time is best invested looking for workarounds or substitutes for those that don’t rather than banging one’s head against the barn in frustration. If I ever need rhubarb, the stuff grows like crazy in my brother’s yard back in Minnesota.

Maybe he’ll trade me some for a batch of fresh horseradish.

* My dad hated the stuff and after we boys were gone he tried many times to kill it. He finally succeeded by ripping the roots out and planting horseradish in the midst of its ruin. Third Punic War, FTW.
** All things considered, dad was no Scipio.


  1. Rhubarb not growing? Inconceivable.

  2. Yours probably grows up right through the snow, huh?

  3. I haven't looked at it for awhile, but shoots were poking up about a week or 10 days ago before we got snow and cold again. I've been thinking about dividing it up a little, we have two hills and Mrs. G harvest the heck out of it. Since we have a lot of jam left over maybe she can give it a year off.

    I've never tried to kill it, but I've heard it is pretty hardy stuff.

  4. Rhubarb pie in the summer
    Rhubarb pie made by my mother
    Nothing better in the winter
    Than rhubarb pie after dinner