Spring Gardensong - Rhubarb & Bulbs Keep the Music Going
by Marion Owen
November 20, 1999

Two plant-events signal the arrival of spring, each in their own way. Rhubarb, one of my favorite plants is often regarded as the Ugly Duckling of the garden. But as you'll soon learn, there's more to its pucker power reputation. As one of the first edible plants to emerge in spring, the red knuckles poke through the soil. Defying snow and freezing rain, leaves unfurl into big, heart shaped and crinkled fans atop cherry-red stalks. When that first pie comes out of the oven, I know spring is truly here.

On the opposite end of the rhubarb spectrum come the bulbs. "Anyone who has a bulb has spring," I once read. How can you top bulbs? Their shining faces, rotating with the sun... Vegetable or Fruit?

Rhubarb suffers from an identity crisis. Sunset's New Western Garden Book describes rhubarb as an "uncommon vegetable" and Joy of Cooking does little to boost rhubarb's self-esteem. "Only by the wildest stretch of the imagination can rhubarb be included in this [fruit] chapter, but its tart flavor and its customary uses make it a reasonable facsimilie, when cooked, of fruit."

What rhubarb lacks in clear identity, it more than makes up for in character. Rhubarb has ties to a favorite American sport, cleans metal pots, and helps the ozone layer.

The word "rhubarb" is a slang term associated with baseball. It means "a heated argument," a "rumpus" or a "row." It's easy to see how the term can apply to an argument with the umpire.

Rhubarb is useful in controlling aphids. In the book, Slug Bread & Beheaded Thistles —Amusing & Useful Techniques for Nontoxic Gardening & Housekeeping, author Ellen Sandbeck describes how to make a rhubarb leaf spray: Boil a half dozen leaves in a quart of water for 30 minutes. Add a dash of liquid soap and spray it on the aphids. Test the spray first on a single leaf. Also, since rhubarb leaves are potentially toxic, use the spray only on ornamentals.

There's more: Rhubarb is a planetary hero. According to Science magazine, in 1995 two Yale scientists discovered a chemical found in rhubarb leaves that neutralizes CFC's (chlorofluorocarbons) that break down the earth's protective ozone layer.

A member of the buckwheat family, rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) is a good source of calcium, potassium and vitamins A and C. Originating from the northern regions of China, Tibet and Russia, the first rhubarb plants in America arrived from Siberia in 1770. Quickly establishing itself as a hardy perennial, cooks have long called rhubarb the "pie plant" because it makes such delicious desserts.

Known as da huang in China, rhubarb root has been used in medicine for more than 2,000 years. In tinctures, decoctions and as an antibacterial wash and astringent, rhubarb has mild laxative qualities and has been used as a purgative and liver cleanser in the East and West.

Making Rhubarb Happy

Easy to grow, rhubarb likes a cool climate, requiring at least two months of cold weather. Rhubarb prefers a well-drained acidic (low pH) soil, and responds well to periodic mulching. Give it a sunny spot all to itself, because with proper care, it will continue to grow and yield for many years. Grow rhubarb from root (or crown) divisions, and if you're lucky, a neighbor will have plants who need new homes. When buying from a nursery, Canada Red, MacDonald and Cherry Red (red stalks) and Victoria (green stalks) are popular varieties. If color is important, select plants with the reddest stalks, or simply add strawberries to recipes. To transplant, set the new crowns at least 4 inches deep and 3 to 4 feet apart in holes filled with lots of well-aged manure or compost. Water thoroughly. The leaves may wilt, but they'll recover. Also, refrain from harvesting from new plants that first year.

Seasonal Growing Tips

In the spring, pull any straw mulch away from the plants to let the sun warm the soil. Side-dress with ample compost or manure in midsummer and again in the fall. For extra zip, apply fish emulsion. When the plants die down later in the year, bury them with manure, leaf-mold, or compost.

Rhubarb needs lots of water, otherwise it become fibrous and tough. If moisture is a concern, make a little moat around each plant and fill it with water. The moisture will slowly soak in around the plant.

Every few years divide your plants to give them more room. Do this in early spring before the leaves fully develop. Out of consideration for the plant, give them at least 24 hours "notice" before dividing them and tell them what you plan to do. This helps them make necessary preparations.

From the Garden to the Kitchen

Harvest rhubarb by pulling the stalks down and away and break it off at the base. Don't cut the stalks with a knife as this lets in rot, and leave at least half the stalks on the plant.

Diced into chunks, or quick-cooked into sauce, rhubarb freezes very well. Add 1-1/2 cups diced rhubarb to your favorite muffin or banana bread recipe. Try rhubarb sauce over brownies, sponge cake or even baked salmon. Here's a recipe for a refreshing drink that's both tasty and beautiful.

Rhubarb Lemonade Punch

1 cup sugar or 1/2 cup mild honey

4 cups water

4 cups diced rhubarb

2 cups lemonade

Cracked ice

Boil sugar (or honey) and water together for two minutes. Pour the hot syrup over the diced rhubarb. When cold, strain out the juice. Save pulp for other recipes. To serve, mix juice and lemonade together and pour over creacked ice. Add a sprig of fresh mint. Makes about 6 glasses of punch.

Love Those Bulbs!

Bulbs are so on-schedule and unassuming. They grow most anywhere: in raised beds, under trees, against office buildings and indoors for a splash of winter color. Snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths, bulbs are the horticultural equivalent of cats: self-contained, easy-care and supremely suited to a variety of conditions. As undemanding plants, they can stay in the ground year after year like perennials. Daffodils, for example, can thrive for years in the same old soil with little care. Bulbs respond to attention however, and you'll be rewarded with more vigorous growth, colors that are more vibrant, and longer lasting blooms.

Spring Care Tips

WATERING: When bulbs emerge in spring, make sure they have enough water. Moisture is important when the foliage is out because the bulbs are manufacturing food for next year's bloom.

FEEDING: Feed bulbs as soon as the leaves appear. Bonemeal has long been called a "complete" bulb food. True, bonemeal is a good source of phosphorus (P) and calcium (Ca), but topdressing with an organic fertilizer or compost provides plants with nutrients from the time root growth begins until the foliage and flowers mature.

One way to give your bulbs complete nutrition is to mix up the following ingredients. (Available at most garden centers):

2 lbs. of dried blood (for nitrogen), or 2 cups fish meal

2 lb. of bonemeal (for phosphorus and calcium)

3 lb. of greensand or wood ashes (for potash)

Apply your bulb food as a topdressing by scratching it in around the plants with a hand trowel or "claw."

Bulbs prefer loose, humus-rich soil, so mulching with organic materials helps break up and loosen compacted soils and improve drainage. Growing bulbs in raised beds or containers also solves most drainage problems.


After blooming, bulbs need little care. Remove the seed heads only if you don't like the looks of them. For tulip, removing the seed heads helps conserve the bulb's resources.

Before trimming any leaves, allow them to yellow and wither naturally. Bulbs need at least two months of leaf growth after blooming to produce food for next season's bloom. Some gardeners like to gather the shriveled leaves together, fold them over and bind them with a rubber band. This can cut off sunlight and air though, encouraging rot.


Hardy bulbs such as daffodils, crocus and some tulips naturalize well. As they multiply, they can become overcrowded and you'll need to thin them. You can spot a suffering daffodil when flowers become consistently smaller, or the plants stop blooming altogether.

After they're done blooming, let the foliage die back. Then carefully turn up a clump of bulbs with a potato fork. Shake the dirt off and pull all the larger (1 to 2-inch) bulbs apart. Gently pull off any small bulbs or offsets from the larger parent bulbs. Replant the parent bulbs and save the offsets for another section of the garden or put them in a pot and give them to friends. Be patient., the tiny bulbets may take several years to mature and bloom.

Rhubarb and spring bulbs yank me out of winter's spell. They call for me to go play in the garden. My jeans and tools welcome the soiling. After all, "In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt."


Plants by mail (most have free catalogs):

V. Kraus Nurseries, Ltd., PO Box 180, Carlisle, ON, Canada L0R 1H0. Phone: 416-689-4022

Country Heritage Nursery, PO Box 536, Hartford, MI 49057. Phone: 616-621-2491. (Canada and Overseas)

Indiana Berry & Plant Co., 5218 W. 500 S., Huntingburg, IN 47542. Phone: 812-683-3055.


Slug Bread & Beheaded Thistles, (Amusing & Useful Techniques for Nontoxic Gardening & Housekeeping), by Ellen Sandbeck, De la Terre Press, PO Box 16483, Duluth, MN 55816. Phone: 218-727-8524.

Rodale's Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, Rodale Press

Author Marion Stirrup of Kodiak, Alaska, has been featured in "Organic Gardening" and "Better Homes & Gardens." Marion also developed PlanTea, the organic tea bag fertilizer. For a FREE SAMPLE send a SASE with 2 stamps to Plantamins, Inc., PO Box 1980, Kodiak, AK 99615; Phone: 907-486-2552. If you live outside the U.S. please send a post card or a-mail to:

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