June is the time to pick rhubarb in the garden, so frown

Years ago, when my now-adult daughter, Justine, was a toddler, we visited a U-picking farm where she picked plump, ripe strawberries from a sprawling field of plants. Some made it to the basket that sunny June day; others went straight into her mouth.

That’s when he learned that June is for strawberries. It’s also for roses, which makes sense when you consider that both plants are members of the rosacea family.

And, as I learned on the farm that day, June is also for rhubarb, which I’ve never seen before.

Following the lead of other strawberry pickers waiting to pay off their loot, I added a bunch of rhubarb to my cart, wondering aloud what to do with it. My fellow shoppers educated me on pies and jams, so I went home on a mission to prepare and learn how to grow the strange, red, celery-like stalks.

I’ve since learned that rhubarb is a popular June crop in New England and some Midwestern and Midwestern states, where strawberry rhubarb pie reigns supreme. It’s not as rare in my New York home as it was all those years ago, but I’d hardly call it a staple.

The good news is that for those who have a hard time finding it in the supermarket, or just want to grow their own, adding rhubarb to the garden is a worthwhile effort, although it does require patience.

Perennial in horticultural zones 3-8, rhubarb can be expected to return and produce for up to 10 years. Plant their crowns, which are bare roots, in the fall or spring when the weather is still cool. They will spread out, so give them space by placing them 3-4 feet apart in similarly spaced rows. Bury your sprouts, or “eyes,” 2 inches below the soil line, making sure they are facing up in compost-enriched soil.

Keep plants well watered, and when the weather is warm, apply 2 inches of mulch to retain moisture, discourage weeds, and regulate soil temperature. Then apply a balanced, slow-release fertilizer with a nutrient ratio of 10-10-10.

Do not harvest any stalks during the first year of the rhubarb in your garden. Doing so would endanger the longevity of the plant. But remove the flowers and their stems so the plant can channel its energy into root growth rather than seed production. Replenish the mulch in late fall, after temperatures drop.

You can start harvesting, sparingly, in the plant’s second year, removing no more than four stems per plant when they are red (unless you’re growing a pink or green variety) and 12-18 inches long. Taking more would risk depleting the power plant, reducing future production, so practice moderation.

You can freely harvest during and after the third year, but never remove more than two-thirds of a single plant.

Rhubarb leaves are poisonous, so remove and discard them before cutting the stalks into 1-inch pieces for cooking.

I repeat: do not eat the leaves.

Admittedly, I was skeptical after first tasting a sweet and sour raw rhubarb stalk all those years ago. But, mouth still pursed and fingers crossed, I went ahead and added chunks to my strawberry shortcake filling. The cake was delicious, of course; its sweet berries are perfectly offset and complemented by the tart flavor of the rhubarb. I was an instant, and amazed, convert.

The vegetable, considered to be a fruit just as tomatoes are fruits commonly considered to be vegetables, is also not a one-trick pony. It works just as well in jams, relishes, muffins, and even simmered for 10 minutes, then mixed with fruit in smoothies. Try roasting, stewing, sautéing, and serving with ice cream, or adding it to applesauce recipes. Just don’t forget the sweetener.

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