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Question of the Week © 2017 Mike McGrath

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Heirloom Rhubarb vs. Oklahoma Summers

Q. We're moving from Colorado to Northeast Oklahoma and really want to take our rhubarb with us. The plants have been passed down through my husband's family and have been in the ground here in Colorado for 16 years. (We're harvesting this season's crop right now—in late May.) I understand from reading the article on rhubarb at your website's "A to Z Answers" section that we'll need to plant them in an area that's protected from the afternoon sun in their new, warmer climate. But what should we do with the clumps when we arrive in Oklahoma around August 1st? Should we store them in a cool, dark place and plant them later in the Fall? I really don't want to leave these family plants behind, but it sounds like our timing is all wrong!

---Megan, moving from Broomfield Colorado to Northeast Oklahoma

A. Ah yes, rhubarb—the ultimate garden oddity! One of the few perennial crops, and the only vegetable we use like a fruit. This relative of buckwheat produces stalks that make a delicious pie filling when cooked up with lots of sugar; but you have to be careful to trim off every little bit of the poisonous leaves.

(That's why you only ever see the stalks for sale in grocery stores and never the leaves. But those leaves are nicely ornamental; a fun visual extra for gardeners who grow rhubarb. Just be sure to trim it all off before you use the stalk.)

At any rate, this is a difficult situation. Rhubarb is a seriously cool-climate crop that grows best in the North. It typically doesn't survive the hot summers of the South.

Now, it is grown in places like Oklahoma and Texas. People who move down to these areas from the North often miss fresh rhubarb so much in the Spring that they grow it fresh every year as an annual. They'll plant a big clump outdoors in the Fall or start plants indoors early like tomatoes and then move them outside in time for a nice harvest that Spring. But in most regions of the South, the plants will burn up after that in the summer heat.

Yes, sometimes the plants can survive to produce again the following year—especially if that summer happens to be on the cool side, the rhubarb is planted in a spot that gets a lot of afternoon shade and it gets watered heavily during hot dry spells. But survival in the South is always going to be the exception, not the rule. And in this case, that 'rule' would mean the end of the line for a family heirloom.

So we emailed Megan back to ask what's going to happen to the property she's moving away from. She answered that they'll be renting it out and added, "are you thinking I could have someone dig the clumps up in the fall and send them to me to plant when it's cooler in Oklahoma?"

No; that might provide a harvest next Spring, but wouldn't solve the long term problem. So I kept asking questions: "Do you have renters ready to move in? If so, do you know them? And do you intend to return to this house at some point?" She responded that they don't have specific renters yet, but that "we've rented this home several times, and our experience has been that renters tend not to be very adept at gardening. The rhubarbs are some of the few plants that have survived despite obvious neglect." She also added that they do plan to return to Colorado periodically to visit family.

So here's the plan. Come back to Colorado for a visit in the fall after you get settled in Oklahoma, dig up the clumps and divide each clump into halves or quarters. (This should be done every five years or so anyway to keep the rhubarb productive.)

Plant some of the new divisions at the homes of trusted friends or family, and reinstall a few at the original house. Then either time some of your visits back to Colorado to coincide with peak rhubarb season and/or have the new caretakers of the plants overnight half of each harvest to you. You'll be the envy of everyone in Oklahoma!

And this isn't specific to just rhubarb. We'd give pretty much the same advice to people in similar situations with other kinds of plants. You don't want to move a plant with a precious family history to a part of the country where it's almost guaranteed to die a terrible death.

Luckily, Megan loves her answer. We emailed her a rough outline of the plan and she responded, "That's perfect! Thank you so much for 'getting' it!"

Oh—and our previous article on rhubarb includes a link to a video of a woman in the UK who forces rhubarb indoors for an early harvest. So if the new place in Oklahoma has a cool cellar, they might want to take one of the clumps with them and try that technique as well.


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