Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
March, 2008
Regional Report

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These lovely terra cotta pots are forcing cloches for rhubarb.

Making Rhubarb More Delicate

It may seem that the cold weather will go on forever, but spring will really be here in a few weeks. In order to keep our spirits up so we're ready for the coming harvest, let's investigate something a little different to make our gardening season even more fun.

One vegetable that seems to be so entirely British is rhubarb -- forced rhubarb, that is. We certainly grow plenty of rhubarb here in the Midwest and who could say no to a rhubarb pie? But the British have elevated this to an art form. There is even an area in England referred to as the Wakefield Rhubarb Triangle. Evidently every farm in this area has a forcing shed, a dark building where bright pink winter rhubarb is grown.

Forcing Brings out the Delicate Nature
I love rhubarb, but many people don't like the strong flavor, even when sweetened. But the pink forced rhubarb is an entirely different vegetable. It is tender and has a soft, elegant flavor. The stalks are grown in darkness so they put on few leaves. This forces the stalks to color prettily. British gardeners have a mild enough climate that they can often force it right in the garden, but commercial rhubarb producers in Britain and the United States do it much more efficiently.

Commercial Forcing
Here's how commercial producers do it: two- to three-year-old rhubarb crowns are allowed to go into dormancy in the fall and exposed to temperatures just below freezing for about two months. In our climate, this means they must be protected with straw bales to keep them from freezing hard, or brought into a forcing structure that can be kept cool.

After this cold period, the crowns are dug and placed in a dark, earthen-bottomed forcing structure, and surrounded with moist soil. The soil is kept moist and the temperature is kept between 50 and 56 degrees. The rhubarb begins growing, and is picked a couple of times a week for four to six weeks.

Force Rhubarb in Your Garden
It's possible to do this in the garden by stacking hay bales around the plants and placing a clay pot or bucket over the top to block out light. However, if you are in a snowy area, you might think twice before stepping out to the rhubarb patch for harvest.

I am watching my rhubarb patch closely this year so I can try blanching it as it comes up in the spring. It will be an interesting experiment because I will have to find the right balance between cool and warmth. But I have plenty of rhubarb crowns, so I'm going to give it a try.

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