Rhubarb offers a tart, yet juicy taste of early summer

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By Himanee Gupta-Carlson, photos by Pattie Garrett

 

Rhubarb plant at Otrembiak Farm’s stand, photo courtesy of Pattie Garrett

As a child, Pattie Garrett did what so many youngsters do to this day. She marked the spots in her neighborhood where rhubarb grew. She’d zoom in, break off a stalk and eat it raw. Neighbors didn’t mind because when rhubarb was in season it grew quite fast. In the child’s mouth, the reddish outer stem blended with the green interior to create a sweet-tart treat, reminiscent of an apple, celery, strawberry, or something in between.

These days, Garrett finds her rhubarb on Wednesdays and Saturday at the Saratoga Farmers’ Market, where it is in full season now. It’s also available for purchase as a starter plant from the Otrembiak Farm.

Rhubarb is a perennial, which means it requires a year for its roots to get established, and three years for the plant to flourish. Farmers harvest from May through July.

One joy of a perennial patch is the story of its growth. As Paul Arnold of Pleasant Valley Farm recounts, “We had rhubarb from 1989 to 2016. We originally planted our plants in a large dose of composted sheep manure. Nutrients were good and they did well.”

The plants grow wider over time, and the stems get thinner. As a result, farmers generally dig up the roots every three or four years and split them, into eight-inch squares.

“We would split them into four equal pieces, leaving one in the ground and either expanding the patch or selling off the extra three pieces,” Arnold says. “We split them with a spade while they were dormant in the early spring. The root is one big mass so there is no guesswork.”

By 2016, Pleasant Valley’s patch held 72 plants. But the plants were becoming less productive and were in the way of a washing station expansion. So, Arnold notes, “we eliminated it, and this spring we purchased new plants.”

My own love for rhubarb, unlike Garrett’s, developed later in life when my husband and I inherited a patch that had been started in the 1990s in our backyard. It continues to produce and as we started farming, we began the second patch.

The Saratoga Farmers’ Market is 3-6 p.m. Wednesdays and 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturdays at High Rock Park. Find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and check us out on the FreshFoodNY app. E-mail friends@saratogafarmers.org for volunteer opportunities.