The Rhubarb Patch. Splitting Rhubarb

 If you have a rhubarb patch that’s not growing well you might be able to invigorate it by splitting it. Here’s exactly how and when to split your rhubarb.
 

Like most people, I acquired a rhubarb patch when I moved into this house.  Which is how most people get their rhubarb.   It’s like a little vegetative amenity; right up there with heated floors and a walk out deck.

In fact, there is absolutely no scientific proof that anyone anywhere has ever *planted* rhubarb.   So where did it originally come from?  It all started at the beginning of time when that great being in the sky, the Rhubarb Fairy, tapped her rhubarb baton on a select few houses around the world and blessed them with a rhubarb patch.

So.  You either have it or you don’t. And sometimes, sometimes … if conditions are exactly right and there’s a certain magic in the air … you will move into a house THAT HAS A RHUBARB FAIRY PATCH.

Or you can find someone that needs to split theirs.  I pretty much made up that whole Rhubarb Fairy thing.  But I bet it’s true.

The time to split rhubarb is the same as the time to split hostas, peonies or anything else that can be split.  You want to do it in the early spring or late fall. It’s also best to do it on an overcast day or early in the morning or later at night.  It’s just less of a shock to the plant that way.

I knew rhubarb could be split, what I didn’t know what that it HAS to be split.  For the past couple of years my rhubarb has been sad and spindly.  I blamed it on the rhubarb having some sort of anger issues towards me.

Turns out that isn’t the case.  It just needed to  be split.  If you notice your rhubarb isn’t as thick or lush as it used to be, chances are you can revive it by splitting it.

 

Title
 
Old Rhubarb
 
As you can see, my rhubarb patch had become a scraggly mess.  I managed to eek out a couple of rhubarb crisps from it this season and some jam last year, but it was a struggle.  The stalks were teeny tiny and there just weren’t very many of them.  So I decided to split it.

And this … is how you do it.

 

Rhubarb 2
 
Dig your entire rhubarb plant out being careful to get as many of the roots and tubers as possible.  Dig far and dig deep.  Set the plant aside.
 
Hole With Compost

 

Fill the hole you just created by adding tons of compost.
 
Splitting Rhubarb
 
Go back to your rhubarb plant and split it into sections.  When you look at the root system, it’ll tell you where to split it.  There are certain rules about leaving a certain amount of tuber and a certain number of buds, etc., but I just hack at it.  Which is also how I divide peonies and hostas.  If you’d like to be more precise about it, that’s fine.  I’m just not the person to tell you how to do that I’m afraid.
 
Planting Rhubarb
 
Once you’ve split the rhubarb you can either replant all of it in your own yard (each plant needs to be around 2-3 feet apart) or you can keep one plant, and give the rest away.  I chose to keep one and give the rest away.

Plant the rhubarb to the level it was at before.

If you’re splitting it in the fall, like I am, you should then break off any of the leaves that are remaining on the plant so the plant doesn’t need to worry about losing energy trying to keep those stalks and leaves alive.

 

If you’re splitting in the spring, you probably won’t have leaves and stems to worry about.
 
Clipping Rhubarb
 
Now all you have to do is water it well. Watering helps the plant get over the shock of being transplanted. The same way lots of people get drunk when they’re transplated to a new home.

I made that up.

But I bet it’s true.

 

60 Comments

  1. Roberta says:

    I understand that after splitting and transplanting rhubarb I must wait until the third year to harvest it. But if I use the technique described here, and take out the entire plant and split it and replant – does that mean that I also have to wait to harvest from the original plant that is going back into the original location, because it, in essence, is no different from the parts that are split off and planted elsewhere?? Thanks for any advice on this – I haven’t seen this point mentioned anywhere I’ve looked.

  2. Sandra D says:

    I still haven’t split my rhubarb (I made a comment in 2014!) But, I have shared it with people.

    Here’s a wonderful rhubarb cake recipe from a German co-worker I knew who got some rhubarb from my mom in the ’80’s:

    German Rhubarb Cake

    Crust:
    1/2 c butter (125 g)
    1/2 c sugar (125 g)
    1 egg
    1 c flour (250 g)

    Beat butter and sugar together. Add egg. Add flour. Pat onto cookie sheet.

    Filling:
    4 c rhubarb (and a bit more) (1 kg)
    3-4 eggs, separated
    1 1/4 c sugar, separated (300 g)

    Optional: cinnamon, vanilla

    Mix half of sugar with yolks; add to rhubarb and mix well.

    Meringue:
    Beat egg whites until stiff. Add the rest of the sugar slowly.

    Instructions:
    Layer crust, filling and meringue onto cookie sheet. Bake at 375 for 45 minutes – watch meringue.

  3. Krista Brubacher says:

    Vegetative amenity. 😂😂😂😂

  4. Carli says:

    Apparently the rhubarb fairy loves Alaska. I finally found someone who doesn’t have a ton already in their yard, so now I have someone to give mine to! It shows up as a tiny red sprout in mid May and by mid June it’s huge! My stalks are a full inch to a inch and half thick and 18 in long!

  5. Robin Willcox says:

    Can you clarify for me about the spindly stalks – we have 3 older plants that are doing just fine; and added 2 new ones last year just next to them that are nothing but spindly little stalks. Same bed, same sunshine. Does that mean the newer plants are too young, i.e. just leave them alone for another season or two, or that they need dividing? Thank you!
    ps a note about a post above – I was taught to NOT compost rhubarb leaves – the oxalic acid endures and damages plants the compost is later put on, not sure if that’s in fact true. I just chuck mine into the woods…

    • Kim f says:

      We have always composted ours, doesn’t seem to harm anything. I’m thinking the composting process breaks down any harmful acids in the leaves.

      As far as your young plant, it’s probably just too young yet, it’ll boost in a year or two. I have 10 year old plants that are just fine without splitting, might give some away this fall though since they are huge!!

  6. susan says:

    Love rhubarb! I planted some last spring, and the plant got HUGE this summer! I am hoping I can pick some next year. In the meantime, I was fortunate enough to know people that have rhubarb, but don’t actually eat it themselves.

    One of the things I made that is a new favorite, is from the Ball Canning book, and it is a rhubarb citrus drink concentrate. WOW is it ever good! I had been looking at the recipe for a couple of seasons, and always make the strawberry lemonade on the next page, but the rhubarb is even better!

    Bonnie, there is also rhubarb upside down cake, rhubarb sauce for ice cream or crepes, and I even made some sweet/sour bbq sauce with rhubarb as a base – it is now one of the most requested when I have friends over.

    Thanks for posting about dividing – I didn’t know it needed it, but will be prepared when the plant does need it. Always learning things with you, Karen!

  7. Bonnie Cramond says:

    I moved into a house once that had a rhubarb patch. Never having eaten rhubarb in my life, I proceeded to ask around and search for rhubarb recipes. The only recipe for rhubarb is strawberry rhubarb pie. I don’t understand why you would want to adulterate strawberries in a pie. I also don’t understand a vegetable that only had one use. So, to this day, I have never tasted rhubarb. I sure wouldn’t plant such a limited vegetable, unless, I find that I do love the taste of strawberry rhubarb pie.

    • Karen says:

      Bonnie … you would love strawberry rhubarb pie. And stewed rhubarb. And rhubarb crisp. I LOVE rhubarb, but part of the reason is I’m more a fan of tart than sweet. I’m an even bigger fan of tart with sweet, which is what rhubarb desserts are. Similar to a lemon or lime pie. ~ karen!

    • Carli says:

      The reason one may want to adulerate strawberries in a pie is because you HAVE TOO MANY STRAWBERRIES. The same is true with rhubarb. I have a freezer full of wild Alaska caught salmon that some people pay $20/lb for but I throw it in a salmon pie, or quiche because I HAVE TOO MUCH! 😂 You have to get creative when you’re sick of eating what you have an abundance of!

  8. Leslie says:

    I wish someone would Rhubarb Punk me … come and plant some at my house and leave a note. A note in the form of a hot Rhubarb Crisp with a recipe attached.

  9. Laura M says:

    I bought 3 tiny rhubarb plants 2 summers ago. Two for our backyard garden at home and one for the cottage garden at Long Point. Anyhoo, the two in our raised bed at home have flourished (yes, I even picked it the summer after I planted it) but the one at the cottage barely survived…2 spindly red stalks and pale leaves. I dug it up and gave it to a coworker who says it is beefing up nicely.
    All 3 plants were in a sunny location…go figure. Also, one of the 2 at home has beautiful ruby red stalks…it’s sister has humungous green stalks, I have no idea why, they were all the same variety of strawberry rhubarb.
    Nature eh?
    Note to self: never plant rhubarb in a 4×4 raised garden bed…they spread out waaaay too much. I should have planted it like a border plant..maybe next spring I’ll relocate them…

  10. Feral Turtle says:

    Mine got very spindly too! It actually started to die off but this year it came back in its full glory. I will know this for the next time it happens! Thanks for a great post.

  11. Beverly, zone 6 eastern PA says:

    Tell /tigersmon at #13 that PEONIES DO NOT HAVE TO BE DIVIDED EXCEPT EVERY 100 YEARS. They are fussy about the depth of the “eyes”, next year’s buds. There is a great risk of being sorry if one chooses to divide Peonies. Usually they do fine all alone, with benign neglect. (Unless sun loss occurs from nearby maturing trees, then moving the entire Peony patch may be in order.)

    I have grown Rhubarb for 20 years with great success. I have only divided it twice in that timespan, and then it was simply carving some away from the outside of the root mass with a sharp shovel and sharing it with other gardeners. The center was not disturbed.

    The trick for healthy Rhubarb is to apply a wide, deep “blanket” of finished compost each FALL, make sure the location has at least 6 hours of sun per day, REMOVE any bloomstalks which resemble 4 foot tall pink broccoli (they steal energy from the root system), and wait to harvest until the third year after transplanting.

    One year I offered Rhubarb at a yard sale. From my 6 foot wide, gargantuan heap of a patch, I pulled 72 stalks, 9 bunches of 8, eight being a generous amount to satisfy most recipes. The plant never blinked. This was because I fed it well, delayed initial harvest to allow the root system to gain strength, placed it in full sun, made sure it was watered in times of sparse rainfall and whispered sweet nothings to it at sunset on the Summer Solstice.

    I believe the strength of the roots increases with age, affording more stalks per square foot eventually. Harvest involves “pulling”, not cutting the stalks. Cutting causes a rotting stem base in its wake. Pulling brings a clean break off the crown of the plant. To pull, one needs a firm wide stance. Bend carefully toward the preferred stalk. Press it in all four directions, N S E W, the tug firmly, thus the need for the wide stance. You should be rewarded with a satisfying “crack” as the stalk disengages from the crown.
    ***Rhubarb foliage is poisonous due to oxalic acid, I think. Compost the leaves.***

    Anyone who makes good Crepes might want to try the recipe called Creamy Rhubarb Crepes… surf it up using that title in quotes. It has become my signature recipe. Cinnamon is the secret. I keep the rhubarb sauce in the freezer year round just for this dish. It is KILLER.

    • Karen says:

      Hi Beverly – I just want to clear things up a bit for TigersMom. You’re correct in saying the Peonies don’t HAVE to be split, but huge plants that outgrow their welcome, do indeed need to be split. This is done by cutting away from the outside of the plant in. Those cut away portions can indeed be replanted. You just have to be careful to plant it at the exact same depth it was used to growing in. The 14 year old peony bush in my yard right was acquired that way. My neighbour was splitting hers because it was too big. So I shoved it in the ground at the correct depth and now … i have peonies. And for the most part Rhubarb does indeed need to be split. It doesn’t need it very often, but once the stalks become spindly you know it’s time to split. ~ karen!

  12. Rita says:

    I’ve tried to grow rhubarb here in Kansas, but apparently we have a fungus in our garden soil that causes a beautiful, full plant to become soggy mush in about 24 hours. We can’t get it established. Good thing my family in Manitoba has rhubarb that grows like a weed. They can’t get rid of it! I replenish my stored from them every summer.

  13. Grammy says:

    About 65 years ago, I was hauling my little brother around in our wagon. The nice neighbor lady gave us a huge bunch of rhubarb and told us to give to our mother so she could make pie. I looked at it (I was 3 at the time) and determined I was not going to take that stuff to my mother because then she would make us eat celery pie. So I encouraged my brother to toss out stalks of rhubarb all the way home. A few days later, the nice neighbor lady asked my mother how the children enjoyed the pie…

    I don’t eat rhubarb, but since you like it, I hope yours thrives.

  14. Shauna says:

    I know, it’s really weird. And, I’ve tried it on Chrome and Explorer. Maybe it’s some blocking thing here at work – it wouldn’t surprise me. I’ll have to test it at home to be sure.

  15. Heather says:

    My Mum used to make wonderful stewed rhubarb — I absolutely loved it. My mouth is watering at the memory. I’m going to have to get some rhubarb-growing friends since growing garden stuff in my condo apartment is frowned upon.
    By the way, it’s *eke* not *eek*. I know it’s nearly Halloween, but …

  16. Barbie says:

    Exactly what my Rhubarb needs right now….to be split! and I know my new neighbor will LOVE to have some! I got mine from another neighbor! So we will just keep passing it around. THX Karen!

  17. Shauna says:

    oh pooh, the Amazon links are gone again:(

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