Gardening Tips: Rhubarb

Editor’s Note: The Spectator is reaching into Michelle Smith’s gardening column archive for some weekly advice that is as relevant now as when it was first written.


What to do this week

Our original idea for this column was to write about what I am actually doing in the garden this week and this week, I am tending to my rhubarb. This is definitely the time to be doing it.

Rhubarb stalks (Photo by By Jeremy Keith from Brighton & Hove, United Kingdom (Rhubarb Uploaded by Fæ) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Rhubarb stalks (Photo by By Jeremy Keith from Brighton & Hove, United Kingdom, rhubarb uploaded by Fæ, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Let’s suppose you have an old rhubarb patch that is not as productive as it used to be. Maybe the plants are starting to be smaller, and are sending up just little spindly stocks, not nice big fat ones. That means that the roots are getting a bit overgrown, and need to be divided. Basically, the plant is strangling itself.

Dig up each individual plant. You will see a big clump of knobby looking roots with a bunch of buds starting to grow in different directions. You may not have to dig up the whole thing and take it out of the ground, but once you have it exposed so that you can see it, you take a sharp spade to it. Cut it so that each piece has a root and a knobby bunch of new young buds and leaves. You then plant each section in a new spot. You can leave one part in the original space, but each other piece should be at least three feet away from its nearest neighbour. If you have too much for the room you have, you can always give some away! After a while, the whole neighborhood may be overrun by rhubarb, so if you can’t make that many pies, you will just have to start making rhubarb wine!

This process of separating rhubarb ideally has to be done every four years. That is a good rule of thumb. You can get away with prolonging the process a bit — I sometimes do it every five years, but I can do that because I top dress the plants this time of year with compost.

Bear in mind that rhubarb stays where it is for years, so what you want to do when you plant these roots is to dig in lots and lots of good new food, both on the piece you left in place and on all of the new plantings. The plant is going to feed off this new food for years, so make sure it gets a really good start. Take out all the weeds and put in lots of compost. You can almost not use too much. Mix the compost in with the regular soil, yes, but use lots. Just be sure that the compost is not too young (only partially decomposed). Make sure it is finished.

This really needs to be done now, so get to it!

The newly divided plants will be too small to harvest the first year. So don’t do more than 1/3 to 1/2 of the patch at a time if you don’t want to go rhubarbless.

Featured image: Rhubarb stalks by Jeremy Keith from Brighton & Hove, UK. Rhubarb  uploaded by . CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.


leaf border




Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.



The Cape Breton Spectator is entirely reader supported, consider subscribing today!