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Early rhubarb - grow, harvest and enjoy

Rhabarber-fruhe-Sorten-Titelbild-Kopie

The most productive rhubarb varieties and the best tricks

Rhubarb is the earliest fruit of spring (some even say: the first one). What could be more obvious than wanting to have rhubarb earlier? First of all, we have selected early varieties of rhubarb that do not start sprouting in April, but instead, in February/March. Also in our trial field with about 20 different varieties of rhubarb we can now (in early April) harvest the first early rhubarb, while the latest rhubarb varieties are just starting to wake up.


Early rhubarb – by forcing rhubarb

Forcing rhubarb has developed since the 19th century, where strong rhubarb rhizomes are cleared in the field before winter and then forced in warm, dark halls for harvesting from Christmas to spring.

In England, from the late 19th century to the 1950s, there was an entire region, the so-called Rhubarb Triangle, in West Yorkshire in Middle England, which existed entirely due to the rhubarb cultivation and the forcing of early rhubarb. Rhubarb all year round, that was the goal of these growers – and older Englishmen, who were allowed to enjoy a school lunch, also know that rhubarb puree was served for dessert (!) every day after lunch. But not everyone remembers that too well...

Forcing rhubarb in the garden
In the garden, of course, there is little point in digging out the rhubarb rhizomes, then forcing them in the house and then replanting them. Here, the practice of forcing the rhubarb on the spot has been used for 150 years. Incidentally, one does not necessarily need the stylish clay rhubarb pots that are so popular in the garden magazines; it works quite well with black nursery pots with a volume of about 10-20 litres.

 Topfbild-Kopie

Early rhubarb thanks to upside down pots
And here is how to force rhubarb with upside down pots:

 1.     Start from the 3rd year: do not start forcing the rhubarb plants in the first year. Starting in the third year, the rhubarb is strong enough to provide a good yield and continue to grow healthy afterwards.

 2.      Early, vigorous varieties are better for forcing: by selecting these types the effect is better than using varieties that grow and ripen later. However, it can also be exciting to force a variety that is not suitable for forcing – e.g. the red Siruparber – because you can enjoy a red-coloured variety very early...

 3.      Ready, set, go: start forcing when the rhubarb just starts to grow, when it comes straight out of its dormancy. With the everbearing variety, Livingstone, you can start early in February, as it comes quite easily out of its dormant phase. But beware: in very cold temperatures, the rhubarb may need to be additionally protected against the cold with fleece.

  4.    Use the pot method for an early yield: but how does forcing really work? Just put a big black pot over the rhizome and weigh it down with stones so that it will not blow away in the wind. Note: since the pots usually have drainage holes at the bottom (in the inverted state at the top), you should also cover the pots with a black plastic or similar to prevent light from coming in. Without light, the stalks grow even faster (they reach towards the light...) and obtain a finer, less fibrous texture, however they also remain paler...

  5.    Harvesting early rhubarb: harvest the stalks when they reach 20-30 cm or alternatively when they have reached the top of the pot. It usually takes between 2 and 4 weeks from the time the pot is covered up to the harvest and it depends on the weather and point in time during the spring. As with the normal harvest, the early rhubarb stalks are simply twisted off. Leave the smaller shoots so that they can be harvested later in a second round.

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  6.    Leave it at two harvests: otherwise the rhubarb plant, which has not yet been able to assimilate, is weakened too much. Uncover the pot during a covered week phase, preferably without direct sunlight, so that the leaves can slowly get used to the sunlight; they will produce chlorophyll and then begin to assimilate.

 7.   Force only every 2-3 years: ideally, one does not want to expose a rhubarb plant to stress every year, but rather leave it alone for a year, so that it can regain its strength.

 Eary-Green-Kopie

Our earliest rhubarb variety is Early Green. In normal weather conditions, it produces thick, green stalks as early as March, which can already be harvested at the end of March/beginning of April without any forcing measures. If you additionally place fleece over the Early Green rhubarb, the harvest will take place two weeks earlier. This year, with the coldest March, we were able to harvest Early Green for the first time on 6 April, two weeks after the winter weather had somewhat improved. Interestingly, this year's first outdoor harvest of Early Green took place at the same time as the early harvest of Livingstone or Siruparber. If you force Early Green instead of these varieties, another 2-4 weeks could certainly be maximised, so that the earliest harvest of the early rhubarb could take place as early as March – out in the garden of course, albeit under the black pot hat.


And what does the early rhubarb taste like?

As I mentioned, I harvested Early Green earlier this year, without any forcing measures, plus the forced stalks of Livingstone and Canada Red that were forced using the pot method. And of course I also tasted and rated the three rhubarb varieties BEFORE my Saturday breakfast! The greatest pleasure – even before the meal – was certainly due to the different rhubarb colours: Siruparber Canada Red produces only thin stalks when forced, however at the beginning without sunlight a fine, pink colour is characterised, which is simply entrancing. As you know, the eye feasts before the mouth. Even on the experimental field at the harvest, I could not resist the pink temptation and ate a Canada Red stalk fresh – and it tasted excellent to me. Early Green, with its thick stalks, cooks to a really green-coloured puree, as you would expect from a sour rhubarb, while the colour of Livingstone changes somewhere between a greyish-yellow and grey-green – which is for me a typical English colour...

3x-Mus-Kopie

But now to the flavour: as a fan of sourness, I like Early Green, the real early rhubarb, which can also be harvested early, without forcing methods.

For me, the pronounced acidic aroma, the characterful rhubarb taste is simply fantastic, although I would like to admit that it is probably not sugar-free. Malicious critics claim that without the widespread availability of enough sugar in the 19th century, the triumph of rhubarb would certainly not have been possible – and they are probably right. Back to the flavour of Early Green: for me, this is the original rhubarb, just how rhubarb should taste.

Early-Green-Mus-Kopie

Compared to Early Green, the other two varieties, Livingstone and Canada Red, that had been forced using the pot method, are quite mild, almost "round". I almost said "boring", but I know that I have to correct my preference for sourness a bit if I want to meet a wide range of tastes. In my opinion, the rhubarb flavour of Siruparber Canada Red is still a bit better than that of Livingstone.

Siruparber-Canada-Red-Kopie

On the other hand, one may also have to consider that a forced Livingstone plant produces about five times more yield than a forced Siruparber and it functions as a tireless rhubarb production machine throughout the summer and autumn...

 Livingstone-Mus-Kopie

And we are once again faced with an alternative: quantity and yield against beauty and (possibly) a little bit more flavour. Which variety would I choose, you ask?
My answer is clear: both varieties – and a third, of course, the original early rhubarb Early Green! After all, it is possible to force a rhubarb plant every second or third year...

All of the mentioned rhubarb varieties and even more can be found online in the Lubera shop. At Lubera®, as you may have guessed it, we started breeding new rhubarb varieties a few years ago and we will be able to introduce the first new varieties in a couple of years.

 

 

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