Got pie plant?

"Pie plant" was the name my Swedish grandmother used for rhubarb. It is a popular perennial vegetable — enjoyed not only by Scandinavians — used mainly for desserts, jam and sauces. It is so delicious that one of my brothers has a personal goal of tasting as many rhubarb pies in as many locations as possible.

The leafstalks have a unique, tangy taste, and the plant was cultivated in the Far East more than 2,000 years ago. Initially used for medicinal purposes, it didn't find its way to America until the 18th century, where it was used for culinary purposes.

Rhubarb must have a winter chill of at least 40 degrees in order to stimulate spring growth. Although the tops are killed by heavy frost, the roots survive and produce new tops in early spring. If the root is divided every few years, rhubarb will produce for several years.

February or March is the time to start your rhubarb patch. Crowns for starting plants are in nurseries now. Many older varieties were quite green in color, while newer ones such as Crimson Red, Canada Red and Valentine, are, as their names imply, redder and a bit sweeter.

Rhubarb, like most garden plants, likes soil that is fertile, well-drained and with plenty of organic matter in it. In the Rogue Valley, it is happiest with partial shade in the afternoon to protect the leaves from sunburn. And because the plant is quite attractive, you may find a place for it in your perennial bed.

A plant will require about a square yard of space. Loosen the soil about a foot deep. Add plenty of compost or well-rotted manure. Cover the crown with an inch or two of this soil mixture. Planting the crowns too deep will greatly delay production. Water well and keep moist, but not wet.

As is true of other perennial vegetables, rhubarb should not be harvested the first year to give it a chance to establish a strong root system, so it will produce thick, robust stems. Some additional fertilizer, in the form of manure or some 5-10-10 fertilizer added during the summer, will help it get off to a good start. Rhubarb loves manure. I usually add well-rotted manure to my established plants twice a year, and use no additional fertilizer. If the stalks begin to look "skinny" it usually means it needs to be fertilized.

After the plant is well established and more than a year old you can start to harvest, but take just one-third to one-half of the plant in order preserve enough foliage to sustain the crown. Rhubarb leaves can be composted but they should not be eaten because they contain a lot of oxalic acid.

Rhubarb is not a high-maintenance plant. It has few pests, and in our climate it requires irrigation only during dry weather. Remove flower stalks if they appear, as they sap strength from the plant. Feed it some manure a couple of times a year, and you will enjoy your "pie plant" for years to come.

Mmmm — I can hardly wait for some fresh strawberry-rhubarb jam and a warm slice of rhubarb pie!

Coming up: On Saturday, March 5, master gardener Len Tiernan will teach a class on rose care, including pruning. The class includes practice, so dress for the weather and bring your gloves, clippers and loppers. Class begins at 9 a.m. and concludes at noon. The cost is $10 and will be held at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road in Central Point.

On Tuesday, March 8, a class in fruit-tree grafting will be taught by George Tiger, retired OSU Extension agent. This class, which runs from 7 to 9 p.m., is limited to 25, so pre-registration is strongly encouraged. The cost of this class is $25, and each participant will take home a minimum of three varieties of apple-tree grafts.

To register, and for further information on either class, call 541-776-7371.

Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. E-mail her at diggit1225@gmail.com.

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