Rhubarb: How to get the most from your harvest

Rhubarb.  It’s hard to find a person in my circle of friends that doesn’t love it.  But what do you do with it?  

It’s not really one of those veggies that you can just pick and sample whilst in the garden (and yes, it’s a vegetable). You have to do something with it first.

Rhubarb is a tasty addition to pies and toppings.

My rhubarb plant is in its third year, so I have quite a bit to harvest.  And with only two people in my household, we can only eat so much fresh rhubarb pie and rhubarb crisp, which I count as a personal tragedy.

There are lots of neat ways to use rhubarb; some common, others not so common.  Here, we’ll outline some of the best so you don’t have to worry about missing out on a single stalk of delicousness.

How to harvest and care for rhubarb

Rhubarb is in season from April to September, depending on your area.  Here in Idaho, rhubarb season is really May and June.  Never harvest from your rhubarb plant in its first year — it’s busy building a good root system so it can produce great crops for you in subsequent years.  Add side dressings of compost throughout each season; rhubarb is a heavy feeder and will reward you with a bumper crop if you do.

In your plant’s second year, it will produce tall stalks with flowers that turn into seed pods.  Remove these so that the plant will produce the edible stalks all season.  I like to let one or two flowers grow toward the end of the season, because they are quite beautiful.

Harvesting rhubarb is quite simple, really.  Choose a stalk that is 8-12 inches long, grasp it near the base, and pull up and out.  Be careful not to harvest too many stalks at a time, since this can kill the plant.  Never, ever eat the leaves – they’re full of oxalic acid, which is poisonous.

You can also compost the leaves.  When your plant starts producing small stalks, it’s signaling the end of the harvest.  When my rhubarb plant is through for the season, I like to mulch it heavily to encourage good production in the next season.

In your plant’s fourth or fifth year, you can divide it to encourage growth of tender stalks.  Simply drive a shovel into the middle of the plant, cutting it in half.  Fill the hole in with compost, and plant the other half of the plant in the garden (also filling the hole with compost).  Next year, you’ll have two rhubarb plants and lots more rhubarb to enjoy.

How to eat fresh rhubarb

Everyone knows the mainstays of rhubarb recipes: strawberry-rhubarb pie, rhubarb crisp, rhubarb upside-down cake.  But have you ever heard of chilled strawberry-rhubarb soup?  Or have you ever thought of using rhubarb in your morning oatmeal?  The June issue of Eating Well magazine had a great article on how to use rhubarb in new and different ways.  Check out their recipes for:

My personal favorite recipe for using rhubarb is Strawberry-Rhubarb Compote. Check out my recipe here.

Storing and preserving rhubarb

When you’ve tried out all of these recipes and you still have rhubarb left over, it’s time to think about how you can preserve it.  You know, so you can make a strawberry-rhubarb pie for Thanksgiving, delighting all of your guests with the taste of summer in winter.

Freezing Rhubarb (keeps for 12 months or 2-3 years when vacuum sealed)

I love to freeze my rhubarb harvest.  Why?

  • It’s quick and easy
  • I’m not required slave over a boiling water bath in the middle of summer.
  • It keeps for a long time, and you can use it as fresh.  Strawberry-rhubarb pie for Thanksgiving, anyone?
  • It’s healthy (best if you choose the dry pack or stewed methods, less-so if you choose sugar-pack or syrup-pack)
  • When choosing rhubarb to freeze, it’s best to look for red stocks that are crisp, yet tender.  You’ll want to remove the leaves and woody ends, and wash it in cool water to remove all dirt.  Cut into 1-inch pieces, discarding blemished or scarred pieces.

You can choose from a few different methods for freezing rhubarb:

  • Au Naturale (aka Dry Pack): Pack the 1-inch rhubarb pieces into plastic freezer bags, jars or containers.  Label the containers, and freeze.  It’s healthy and quick.  I love to use my vacuum-sealer for this.
  • Sugar Pack: Mix 1 part sugar to 4 parts rhubarb.  Let stand until sugar is dissolved, and pack into your favorite freezer container or bag.  Label and freeze.  Obviously, this reduces the health factor by adding a lot of sugar.  I don’t personally use this method because I like to keep my options open.
  • Syrup Pack: Similar to sugar pack, this involves making a heavy syrup, packing rhubarb within the syrup, and freezing.
  • Stewed: Stew or steam your rhubarb chunks, sweetening to taste.  Pack it in freezer containers.

Canning rhubarb (jams, jellies and preserves)

Since rhubarb is a high-acid food, you can safely can it using the water-bath or boiling water method.  Even though canning your harvest requires a little more preparation and work, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful jars on your pantry shelf with delicacies inside like strawberry-rhubarb jam.  Last I checked, you cannot purchase rhubarb jam at any of the stores in my area.  These jams and jellies make really wonderful Christmas gifts as well.

Drying rhubarb (plain or as fruit leather)

Small, dried rhubarb chunks may not seem that appealing, but if you re-hydrate those chunks, you can use them almost as you would use fresh rhubarb. Dried rhubarb takes up less space than frozen rhubarb, too, and you can also store it on a pantry shelf at 70 degrees Fahrenheit for 2-4 months.  Keep in mind that for every 10 degrees drop in storage temperature, the shelf life for dried fruits and vegetables increases 3-4 times.  For example, if you were able to store your dried rhubarb at 50 degrees Fahrenheit, it would keep for well over a year.

You can also use rhubarb in conjunction with other fruits to make fruit leather (like a Fruit Roll-Up).  Unlike the commercial version, homemade fruit leather is healthier because you control how much sugar is added (or substitute honey), and there are no artificial preservatives or artificial dyes.

How do you use rhubarb?  

Leave me a comment below; I’d love to try something new.


About Stacie

Stacie Humpherys is an engineer, graphic artist, and farmer who lives on her very own petite farmstead just outside of Middleton, Idaho. Say hi on Twitter.


  1. Cheery – rhubarb jam is great too.

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