Lee Valley & Veritas

Gardening Newsletter
  Volume 12, Issue 6 - June 2017  
Dividing Rhubarb
I acquired a rhubarb patch when I moved into my house, which is how most people get their rhubarb. In fact, there is absolutely no scientific proof that anyone anywhere has ever planted rhubarb. So where did it originally come from? It all started at the beginning of time when that great being in the sky, the Rhubarb Fairy, tapped her rhubarb baton on a few select houses around the world and blessed them with rhubarb patches.

So, you either have rhubarb or you don't. And sometimes, just sometimes … if conditions are exactly right and there's a certain magic in the air … you will move into a house that has a Rhubarb Fairy patch! Or you can find someone who needs to split their rhubarb and get it that way. I pretty much made up that whole Rhubarb Fairy thing, but I bet it's true.

A few years ago, I noticed my rhubarb patch had become scraggly – just a few thin, depressed-looking stalks weighed down by anaemic leaves. I knew rhubarb could be split, what I didn't know was that it has to be split.
Undivided rhubarb
Undivided rhubarb
The time to split rhubarb is the same time you would split hostas, peonies or anything else that can be divided. You want to do it in the spring or fall. It's also best to do it on an overcast day or early in the morning or later at night. It's just less of a shock to the plant that way.

Can you split rhubarb in the middle of summer? Well, you can give it a shot. I find if you can keep a lot of soil around a plant's roots and do it when it's cool and overcast you can dig up and move just about anything, even in mid-summer. Just keep in mind there definitely is a greater risk your plant will go into shock and croak on you.

Since splitting my rhubarb, it's not only come back to its former self, but there are now two of them. I have more rhubarb than I know what to do with.

Splitting Rhubarb

(Do this every six years or so or when the plant looks scraggly and sad.)
Dig out your entire rhubarb plant, being careful to get as many of the roots and tubers as possible. Dig far and dig deep. Set the plant aside.
Fill the hole you just created with lots of compost or rotted manure. Rhubarb is a heavy feeder and needs all the nutrients you can throw at it.
Go back to your rhubarb plant that you've set aside and split it into sections. It should be intuitive where to split it when you look at the root system. There are certain rules about leaving a certain amount of tuber and a certain number of buds, etc., but I just hack at it, which is also how I divide peonies and hostas. If you'd like to be more precise about it, that's fine. I'm just not the person to tell you how to do that, I'm afraid.
Splitting the rhubarb
Splitting the rhubarb
After you've split the rhubarb, you can either replant all of it in your own yard (plants need to be around 3 feet to 4 feet apart) or you can keep one plant and give the rest away. I chose to keep two and give the rest away.
Plant the rhubarb to the level it was at before.
Divided plant
If you're splitting it in the fall, you should break off any of the remaining leaves so the plant doesn't lose energy trying to keep those leaves alive. It's just common courtesy. If you're splitting in the spring, you probably won't have leaves and stems to worry about.

Now all you have to do is water it well. Watering helps the plant get over the shock of being transplanted, which is especially important if you decide to do this in the summer.

The best way to get rid of your extra rhubarb plants after splitting it is to secretly plant them in your family's, friends' or neighbours' yards. It's what the Rhubarb Fairy would want. I made that up, but I bet it's true.

Text and photos by Karen Bertelsen

Karen Bertelsen is a Gemini Award nominated television host who has appeared on some of Canada's major networks including HGTV, W Network, Slice and MuchMoreMusic. Seven years ago she started the blog The Art of Doing Stuff (
www.theartofdoingstuff.com) as a creative outlet for her writing and endless home projects. The Art of Doing Stuff now receives over half a million views per month and has been featured in Better Homes & Gardens, Style at Home and Canadian Gardening magazines.
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