All you need to know about these tart stalks from the garden

Jim McCausland

Cooks and gardeners love to argue about the difference betweenfruits and vegetables (all the trouble stems from differingdefinitions). But both sides get tongue-tied when it comes torhubarb. Although it is a vegetable, its tart stalks are cooked,sugared, and used as a fruit. Rinse rhubarb, trim off leaves anddried ends, then cut stalks into pieces for cooking in pies,cobblers, and tarts. Enjoy it, but don't eat too much or you may bereminded of one of the plant's early medicinal uses: its roots wereharvested as a powerful laxative. Rhubarb's poisonous leaves, ofcourse, must be avoided; they are toxic if eaten. (Plant out ofreach of children.)

WHERE IT GROWS: Best in zones 1 through 11 (in cold-winterareas it can produce for decades), but it can handle mild winters(zones 14?24) too, if summers aren't too hot. In the desert, growrhubarb as a fall-planted annual for harvest in winter and spring;it stops growing and starts rotting when daytime temperaturesaverage above 90°.

PLANTING AND CARE: Plant rhubarb with the top of the crownat the soil surface, and mulch with manure in fall and spring.Rhubarb is virtually pest-free, but it is vulnerable to drought.Cut out flower stalks when they appear.

HARVESTING: You can harvest in spring of the second year,but you won't get a full crop until the third or fourth spring. Toharvest, pull stalks back from the base of the plant and twist.Don't cut them off ? the remaining stalk will rot. You can take upto a third of the stalks from a mature plant over a 10-week periodevery year without hurting the plant.

BEST VARIETIES: 'Victoria', with its greenish red stalk, isa standard. Heavy-producing 'Cherry Red' is excellent-flavored.'MacDonald', 'Valentine', and 'Crimson Red' are all very red.

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