UPDATE: After picking a few stalks to test how the plants would handle it, I harvested to first bunch; one pound twelve ounces! Already chopped, frozen, and figuring into an upcoming strawberry rhubarb pie. Rhubarb in Florida? Absolutely!
Winter in north central Florida is the time when growing some of our cool weather vegetables comes into full swing. As a one time resident of a northern state, Wisconsin, I have fond memories of the rhubarb plants that graced almost every farm or suburban home garden, and many city gardens, too. This perennial vegetable did well in the cold climate, because, like many traditional fruit trees, rhubarb remains dormant in the ground through the long, cold winter, waiting to make a comeback in the spring. After spending $4 to $5 for a single 16 oz. bag of frozen rhubarb at everyone’s favorite local grocery chain, I decided to investigate Rhubarb growing options for our area.
As with most new gardening experiments my journey began with a search of the internet to see if anyone had ever had success with rhubarb in the very hot and sunny south. One site assured me that I could grow rhubarb in the south as an annual during the cool months. Armed with this optimistic information I went looking for rhubarb seeds. There aren’t many places that sell these, but one is enough. With seeds in hand I started my “Rhubarb as an Annual” experiment.
The seeds were easy to handle, about 1/8th inch, including the papery fringe, and they had a lovely fruity/flowery aroma. I didn’t do anything to the seeds before planting. They went fright from the baggy into their permanent location. In mid-September I planted in two situations; my hydroponic Vertigro system and in soil in a 3 gallon pot. Germination was about 50 to 60%, and quite slow. I did a second planting about a month later to fill in the corners where the first seeds failed. During the first month I only used water, but once the baby plants developed their first leaves I switched over to the hydroponic mix that I use for leafy greens. I chose this because the rhubarb was sharing the Vertigro with Swiss chard and basil. At first the plants progressed quite slowly, and I did wonder it they would ever amount to anything. Since my only experience with rhubarb was with established perennial plants I was unsure of the path these would take as annuals. At about six weeks the little guys really started to look like little rhubarbs, heart shaped leaves and red color on the stalks.
By mid-November, at about eight weeks in the oldest plants began sending out beautiful new leaves from their centers. These emerged as tightly packed spikes, and quickly unfurled into ruffly, large leaves on thick stalks. Finally I was seeing the rhubarb I remembered.
After that it was just a matter of waiting. One problem I did notice during the waiting stage was that on days when we had warmer than normal daytime temperatures some of the leaves that were exposed to direct sunlight, and not shaded at all by other leaves, would wilt and get droopy. I also noticed that the Vertigro was a bit dry, especially through November when we had no rain. Because of this I increased the original one minute supply of nutrient solution, adding an additional two minutes in the afternoon. This increase of liquid support seemed to make everybody happy and put an end to the afternoon wilts.
The leaves and especially the stalks grew and grew, and new stalks appeared on a regular basis.
Finally the day arrived to do a bit of harvesting. How did I know? A bit of research explained that once the stalks, or at least some of them, were more than 10″ long they were ready for harvesting. Because the rhubarb is growing in the corners of the Vertigro, they were a bit difficult to break of at the base of the stalk. It took a bit of pushing, pulling, and twisting, but finally, there they were, my first harvested stalks of rhubarb. At this point I concluded that my “Rhubarb as an Annual” experiment was a total success.