Exact time to stop harvesting rhubarb to maintain ‘vigour’

Alan Titchmarsh discusses his 'love' for rhubarb

Rhubarb is loved for its sweet yet sharp flavour and unmissable pink colouring, both of which make it the perfect summer fruit. But as many gardeners begin harvesting the ripe stalks from the ground, they may be damaging the crop without realising it. According to British gardener and author Sarah Raven, there’s an easy fix to avoid limiting the yield of pink stems.

While the plant will grow easily in the right conditions, caring for rhubarb is more testing during the harvest season.

The flowering and harvest period typically occurs between March and August, during which, gardeners should pay careful attention to how they approach the thick stems.

According to Sarah Raven, the main thing to consider is the timing of when the stems are picked, as the plant will actually do better if it is left untouched in the first year after planting. 

And when this period (12-14 months) is up, there is one crucial rule that gardeners should always follow.

Sarah said: “In the second season, you can start picking when the leaves have fully unfurled and the stems are approximately 30cm long.

“Never take more than half of the stems at a time – over-cropping will reduce the plant’s vigour.”

Of course, plucking the stalks when they are actually ripe is another important factor, but sticking to the 50 percent rule is the key to a continual harvest.

And by following this guideline, the rhubarb plant should continue to flourish until mid-July – offering more fruit this year as well as those to come.

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Sarah explained that when it comes to physically harvesting ripe rhubarb, stalks should be lifted by gently twisting the stems and pulling from the base of the plant.

The leaves should always be completely removed before cooking the fruit as they are toxic to humans. 

Once the first round of harvesting is done, the crop will continue to grow throughout the summer, though it is important to acknowledge a cut-off date for picking.

According to Stephanie Hafferty, a  no-dig gardening expert, harvesting should stop in July – even if the plant still looks full.

She explained that this is is because the plant is slowing down, so continued harvests will weaken the rhubarb, thus “reducing its quality”.

When picking the crop for the last time in the season, the no-dig advocate also recommended leaving six stems on the plant.

This will set the plant up for the following year to encourage another flourishing yield of sour stems.

Later in the year, older rhubarb plants also need extra attention.

Sarah noted that this included lifting and dividing the crowns of five or six-year-old plants. This should be repeated at the same intervals, between November and March while the plant is dormant.

The gardener said: “Use a spade to lift each crown, split it into three or four pieces, and replant separately. Make sure each piece has a healthy-looking bud, which will become the growth point for next year’s new shoots.

“Remember the leaves are poisonous to eat but can be safely composted with the rest of your garden waste.”

And if you’re wondering what to do with homegrown rhubarb, you can check out our exclusive recipes here.

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