Rhubarb looks as good in yard as it tastes in desserts

KENNEWICK -- Do you like rhubarb?

No, I'm not asking if you find rhubarb dishes tasty, I'm asking if you like it as an ornamental?

Culinary considerations aside, rhubarb is a beautiful perennial with large dark green leaves and brightly colored leaf stalks. You might want to consider adding it to your landscape or garden just for its exotic appearance.

As a perennial plant, rhubarb is a cool season perennial, needing temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit to break the plant's dormancy and allow new growth to begin in the spring. It also prefers moderate temperatures with summer temperatures averaging less than 75 degrees.

Obviously, our average summer temperatures are well above 75 degrees, but local gardeners still grow rhubarb quite successfully.

I would recommend a cooler spot in the garden where the plant will get some shade during summer afternoons. Since rhubarb grows best in well-drained soil that's high in organic matter, it's a good idea to mix quality compost, peat moss, or coconut coir into the area before planting.

Rhubarb is planted from crowns or divisions from other plants, not from seed. Often a gardening friend that is thinning out their crowded plant will be happy to give you a division from theirs. You also can purchase them from garden stores or mail order catalogs. If you desire one with very red stalks, consider that there are different named cultivars or varieties of rhubarb. If you're looking for red, stay away from "Victoria" that has green stalks with only slight red shading.

Spring is the best time to purchase and plant rhubarb crowns. When you receive your crown, plant it as soon as possible to prevent it from drying out. Start by working the soil to a depth of 8 to 10 inches, mixing in 3 to 4 inches of organic matter along with some complete fertilizer such as 16-16-16.

Once ready, plant the crown so that it's only about 2 inches deep. Gently firm the soil and then thoroughly water it in. After the new shoots poke their heads above the soil, mulch the plant with compost.

Rhubarb likes water, so keep the soil moderately moist and be sure to keep the plant mulched. However, don't overdo it with the water, because excess soil moisture can lead to crown rot.

A large vigorous plant, rhubarb also needs regular fertilization. Apply garden fertilizer both in the early spring just before new grow begins and again in mid-summer.

After your rhubarb plant matures, it may occasionally send up flower stalks. These are best removed when they appear so that the plant can focus its energy on growing leaves instead of flowering and seed production.

If your palate is pleased by this decorative vegetable, you should refrain from harvesting any stalks the first year and only a few the second year after planting. Hopefully, by the third year it will be well established and growing well enough that you'll be able to harvest a bumper crop.

Harvest stalks by grasping them near the base and then pulling and twisting gently so they snap off at the base. Don't cut out the stalks or the flower stalk.

Within three to five years, the your rhubarb plant may become crowded and need dividing. Then you can share some with a friend who's looking for some.

Important note: If you don't know it already, only the leaf stalks of rhubarb are edible. The leaves contain oxalic acid and are considered quite poisonous.

* Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for the Washington State University Benton County Extension Office.