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Easy-going rhubarb can be finicky in our climate

Sacramento tends to be too hot and dry for this spring perennial to flourish

Rhubarb stalks
This is the goal: Fat red rhubarb stalks for sweet-tart creations. But Sacramento's
dry heat makes growing rhubarb difficult. (Photos: Kathy Morrison)

Can rhubarb flourish in Sacramento? That’s a question I pondered in earnest after killing one Victoria or Cherry Red root division after another.

In Southern California, I grew up with rhubarb and never thought twice about its care. It was a pest-free perennial that reliably reappeared each spring with sweet-tart bright red stems.

Rhubarb sprout
Rhubarb that's just sprouting this time of
year resembles chard. This is emerging from
a 3-year-old root division of "Glaskins Perpetual,"
one of two purchased at an American River College
plant sale in 2018. It's in a large, deep pot.
Rhubarb, like asparagus, takes
awhile to grow big enough to harvest

When I moved to Sacramento, I planted more rhubarb at our new home. The root divisions barely grew before they shriveled up their first summer and gave up all hope.

The next spring, I planted more rhubarb in a different spot. Same result; the replacements couldn’t take the summer heat.

I switched locations again and tried a shadier (and moister) spot. Those roots just rotted.

I tried planting in pots, but could never find the right balance of moisture and sun. Those rhubarb plants struggled through a few seasons before the drought dried them to dust.

Finally, I found the right spot (so far). It’s a raised bed, providing good drainage. The rhubarb is situated between blueberry bushes, which provide some afternoon shade. Rich with compost, the raised bed stays evenly moist, another important plus. Rhubarb can’t dry out, but it also hates wet feet. A soggy winter can turn the root division to mush.

At least, I think this raised bed is the right rhubarb spot; I’m anxiously awaiting the first sprouts of spring.

In my efforts to solve the rhubarb puzzle, I sought expert advice. I found that most resources (including plant breeders and seed houses) recommend growing rhubarb in USDA Zones 3-8. Sacramento is USDA Zone 9; we have too much heat.

According to Sonoma County master gardener Joe Michalek, rhubarbs prefer an average temperature under 75 degrees. It also needs some cold below 40 degrees to break dormancy.

Is easy-going rhubarb too finicky for Sacramento? Rhubarb needs more water than we get most years, even with “normal” rain; it’s not drought-tolerant. Rhubarb also needs cool weather during late spring and summer, which we rarely experience. It must be sheltered from summer afternoon sun. One local master gardener planting guide listed rhubarb as “not recommended.”

Other issues can cause rhubarb to sulk. New divisions can’t stand weeds or competition to sprouting leaves. Make sure the rhubarb’s bed is well weeded.

Bugs that like sunflowers and artichokes tend to attack rhubarb, too, so it’s advised to keep these plants far apart. With poor drainage, clay soil is problematic for rhubarb, too.

And yet, as a gardener with a nostalgic streak, rhubarb is a spring delight I insist on trying again and again. Once established, rhubarb can thrive for decades with little attention. (I know; that’s the rhubarb I remember from my family’s farm.) That’s still my goal, to grow again that carefree rhubarb of my memories.

Meanwhile, I’ll probably pick up another root division or two, just in case. There’s a spot on the patio with afternoon shade that looks like it might be perfect.

For more advice on growing rhubarb:


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For week of Sept. 24:

This week our weather will be just right for fall gardening. What are you waiting for?

* Now is the time to plant for fall. The warm soil will get these veggies off to a fast start.

* Keep harvesting tomatoes, peppers, squash, melons and eggplant. Tomatoes may ripen faster off the vine and sitting on the kitchen counter.

* Compost annuals and vegetable crops that have finished producing.

* Cultivate and add compost to the soil to replenish its nutrients for fall and winter vegetables and flowers.

* Fertilize deciduous fruit trees.

* Plant onions, lettuce, peas, radishes, turnips, beets, carrots, bok choy, spinach and potatoes directly into the vegetable beds.

* Transplant cabbage, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower as well as lettuce seedlings.

* Sow seeds of California poppies, clarkia and African daisies.

* Transplant cool-weather annuals such as pansies, violas, fairy primroses, calendulas, stocks and snapdragons.

* Divide and replant bulbs, rhizomes and perennials. That includes bearded iris; if they haven’t bloomed in three years, it’s time to dig them up and divide their rhizomes.

* Dig up and divide daylilies as they complete their bloom cycle.

* Divide and transplant peonies that have become overcrowded. Replant with “eyes” about an inch below the soil surface.

* Late September is ideal for sowing a new lawn or re-seeding bare spots.

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