Rhubarb is an old-time plant with tangy, edible stalks. Though technically a vegetable, it’s most commonly used to make jams, jellies, pies, and other desserts. You’ll often see it paired with strawberries for a classic combination.
The rhubarb plant is a perennial that grows and produces best in cool weather. Once established in your garden, you’ll be able to get a good yield year after year.
Because it’s a perennial and grows from spring to fall, you might be wondering when and how to harvest your rhubarb. Here’s what you need to know, plus a few tips to make sure you’re getting the best harvest.
When to Harvest
You should only take off stalks from established plants. If you just planted your rhubarb, wait until it’s had a year to grow before doing any harvesting. Nourish it with some homemade plant food and leave it alone this season.
Knowing when to harvest rhubarb is not an exact science because it will vary depending on your planting zone. Generally, the best time to harvest is from April-June or whatever months your spring and early summer fall into.
You can tell when stalks are ready to pick by looking at the plant itself. Rhubarb doesn’t turn color and “ripen.” You need to look at and measure the length of the stalks.
Stalks should be at least 10-12 inches long before you start picking any. Once they get to this size, you’ll know that the plant has grown enough and will not be harmed by harvesting.
This rhubarb plant is still emerging and is too small to harvest. Wait until stalks measure at least 10-12 inches before picking them.
When to Stop Harvesting
Once you start to harvest your rhubarb, you can keep doing it regularly for about 6-10 weeks as long as you don’t cut off too much.
From midsummer on (usually late June or early July), you’ll need to stop harvesting altogether or only pick a few stalks sparingly. This is because your plant is already starting to get ready for the winter.
Rhubarb uses energy from its leaves to store up for the winter season. If you keep harvesting all the way until fall, you risk killing the plant because it won’t have enough leaves to give it energy.
Because rhubarb likes cool weather, it won’t grow as much during the summer months anyway, so there won’t be much to harvest. When the cooler fall months come around, you may notice a surge in growth.
If this happens, you can safely pick 1-2 stalks from each plant as long as it looks healthy and you leave at least ⅔ of the plant intact. If you’re ever unsure, play it safe and don’t harvest. This will ensure you have a good yield next spring!
Tools for Harvesting
Tools are not absolutely essential since you can pull off stalks with your hands. However, they do make the job easier, especially if you have an older plant with tougher stalks.
A pair of gardening shears or a sharp knife will help you get the job done quickly and cleanly. They also make it easier to cut the leaves off the stalks after harvesting, since the leaves aren’t edible.
To make sure you don’t infect your plants with any type of bacteria or harmful pathogen, always clean your garden clippers before or after use.
Simply rinse your shears under warm water and wash them off with a little dish soap (or baking soda for tougher spots). To get rid of any bacteria, dip the blades in a solution of bleach, white vinegar, or rubbing alcohol.
Dry your clippers with a rag so they don’t rust, and you’re ready to go!
How to Harvest Rhubarb
Once your stalks have reached the right length, it’s time to enjoy them.
To harvest, grab one of the outer stalks right at its base. Pull it slightly away from the rest of the plant, and cut it with your shears as close to the base as possible. Try to make a clean cut so that the plant can easily recover.
If you don’t have garden clippers (or forgot them), you can also grab one of the stalks at its base and slowly pull it away from the plant while twisting. The stalk should break away, although tougher ones might be a little resistant.
Harvest the outer stalks first, and cut or pull them off as close to the base of the plant as possible. Always leave at least ⅓ of the plant to keep growing after you’ve finished harvesting.
Be sure you don’t start pulling the plant up by mistake. If the stalk is being difficult, get a knife and cut it off at the base.
Any time you harvest, be sure you leave at least ⅓ of the plant intact. Once your plant bounces back from its first harvest, you can come back and pick the outer stalks again. If harvested correctly, plants can keep producing for up to 20 years!
Trimming and Storing Tips
After harvesting the stalks, be sure you trim off all the leaves and put them in your compost pile. The leaves are poisonous and should never be eaten.
You can wash and use the stalks immediately to make your favorite recipes or store them for later.
If you want to store your rhubarb, there are two ways to do it. For short-term storage, wrap the stalks in a damp cloth or paper towel and store them in a plastic or reusable bag in your refrigerator. Preferably, you want to store them in a bag that’s slightly open or has small holes so that there’s still air flow.
Use your freshly picked stalks right away in your favorite recipes or store them for later. Be sure you trim off the leaves, which are poisonous, and put them in your compost pile or yard waste bin.
They should keep for up to four weeks in the refrigerator. Put the stalks in a glass of cold water to refresh them before using.
You can also freeze rhubarb for longer-term storage. Just chop the stems up into smaller pieces and freeze them in quart or gallon bags. Blanching is not required, but it can be done to better preserve the flavor and texture.
You can expect rhubarb to keep its fresh flavor for up to a year in the freezer.
Other Tips for a Good Harvest
You’re now all set to pick, store, and cook your rhubarb. Here are a few extra tips to make sure you get the most out of your plants:
- At some point, your rhubarb plant will start to flower, which will make the stalks tougher and more difficult to work with. Cut off the flower stalks when they appear to extend your harvesting season.
- After you finish harvesting in late June or early July, put some homemade compost around the roots to help your plants recover and give you a good yield next year.
- Water your plants during the summer months if you go through a dry spell. You can also apply mulch (especially if you get hot summers) to keep moisture in the soil. This helps your plants to recover and stay healthy after being harvested.
- Your rhubarb will likely keep getting larger over the years. Extremely large stalks can be tough, so divide your plants every 3 to 4 years to keep them to a manageable size. Just dig up the roots in early spring or fall (when the plant is dormant) and split in half.
By following these guidelines for how to harvest rhubarb and keeping your plants healthy, you’ll likely be enjoying freshly picked rhubarb for years to come!