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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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Garden Checklist for week of July 7

Take care of garden chores early in the morning, concentrating on watering. We’re still in survival mode until this heat wave breaks.

* Keep your vegetable garden watered, mulched and weeded. Water before 8 a.m. to conserve moisture.

* Prevent sunburn; provide temporary shade for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, squash and other crops with “sensitive” skin.

* Hold off on feeding plants until temperatures cool back down to “normal” range. That means daytime highs in the low to mid 90s.

* Don’t let tomatoes wilt or dry out completely. Give tomatoes a deep watering two to three times a week. Harvest vegetables promptly to encourage plants to produce more.

* Squash especially tends to grow rapidly in hot weather. Keep an eye on zucchini.

* Some weeds thrive in hot weather. Whack them before they go to seed.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushy plants and more flowers in September.

* Harvest tomatoes, squash, peppers and eggplant. Prompt picking will help keep plants producing.

* Remove spent flowers from roses, daylilies and other bloomers as they finish flowering.

* Pinch off blooms from basil so the plant will grow more leaves.

* Cut back lavender after flowering to promote a second bloom.

* One good thing about hot days: Most lawns stop growing when temperatures top 95 degrees. Keep mower blades set on high.

* Once the weather cools down a little, it’s not too late to add a splash of color. Plant petunias, snapdragons, zinnias and marigolds.

* After the heat wave, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, winter squash and sunflowers. Make sure the seeds stay hydrated.

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