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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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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 19:

Spring will start a bit soggy, but there’s still plenty to do between showers:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Watch out for aphids. Wash off plants with strong blast from the hose.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to fight blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees as they start to blossom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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