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Does rhubarb need winter protection?

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Basically, there are few plants that prepare so well and as early for the winter as rhubarb. Already in the summer, it begins to die back and now in December one sees only a few dried leaves left over the earth-covered rhizome. There is hardly a reason to think about protecting the rhubarb plants during the winter. Obviously, they protect themselves and die back for underground hibernation.

Rhubarb came to Europe via Siberia

Add to this the fact that today's rhubarb came to Europe basically via Siberia and Russia. On the long and hundreds of years long journey from China via Siberia to Western Europe, various Chinese Rheum species were crossed and mixed – and then, miraculously, at the beginning of the 19th century, suddenly and surprisingly, there was the rhubarb for eating, first at the market gardeners of London, then in the UK, and 50 years later in the entire Western world. Of course, this development also suggests good winter hardiness, otherwise the rhubarb would not have survived its centuries of origin across Siberia and Russia to Western Europe.

Three special cases of rhubarb plants that need winter protection

Nevertheless, there are three special cases in which it is worth protecting the rhubarb plants with insulating material during the winter. It is important to know that the protection applies to both the cold temperatures as well as to the solar radiation that is too warm. The latter indirectly causes more harm to the rhubarb than the cold.

First: protecting freshly planted rhubarb

Freshly planted rhubarb plants that have been planted only this year, should be covered starting at the end of November with insulating material, brushwood, straw, leaves, etc. This is all the truer if, in the course of the year, you have dug up, divided and transplanted a rhubarb plant in your own garden. By the way, it really makes sense to divide and replant rhubarb every 5-10 years (or even better: buy new rhubarb from Lubera®!) as the new rhubarb young plants will grow much more vigorously. The division is done in our experience and against our intuition best in the summer, around the longest day. The rhubarb stalks should be previously cut back; the entire rhizome dug up and then neatly divided with a sharp knife. It must be ensured that each part has an eye, a kind of sprout tip that had either grown earlier (and has now been cut back) or is just emerging. Experience has shown that there are fewer failures when propagating in the summer, in warm soil, than in the winter. In both cases, the freshly planted rhubarb parts should be protected.

Second: protecting rhubarb planted in pots

Rhubarb varieties grown in pots should also be protected during the winter. Incidentally, protection from the sun's rays is just as important as protection from the cold. For overwintering, it is best to place the potted rhubarb plants in a shady spot near the house and cover them with a frost-resistant fleece.


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Third: protecting everbearing autumn rhubarb

The particular feature of the new hardy autumn rhubarbs such as the variety ‘Livingstone’ continues to develop new leaves almost without interruption, even after the longest day, and ultimately is less sensitive to extreme temperatures. Interestingly enough, these autumn rhubarbs do not only grow at high temperatures (perhaps with a brief period of weakness in mid-summer), but they also start fresh growth when the temperatures in the winter are mild. In other words, they only enter winter hibernation at very low and permanently low winter temperatures (ultimately with constant ground frost). Once the soil is no longer frozen, they start to get active again.

The picture above is quite typical: it was taken at the end of November and shows normal rhubarb plants on the left (of which there is nothing left to be seen), and on the right the long-living and permanently growing rhubarb variety ‘Livingstone’. Although there have already been some days/nights with temperatures below 0°C, ‘Livingstone’ already has spring fever and has started growing again. If this happens more frequently in the winter and if the winter temperatures fluctuate between -16°C and + 5°C, this can cause signs of fatigue and lead to outwintering damage. We therefore recommend removing all of the remaining leaves and shoots on everbearing rhubarb varieties such as ‘Livingstone’ at the end of November. Then cover the rhubarb as tight and close as possible with a layer of straw or leaves, so that it is protected against winter heat influences. The insulating layer can then be removed at the end of February. That's early enough to get a first, early rhubarb harvest with the first, new shoots that grow.

Even though it is still a bit too early now, at the start of December, my mouth is already watering! Is this why the everbearing rhubarb starts growing its shoots so early and tirelessly, because they long to be on a baking tray?

 

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