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Monday, October 24, 2011

Rhubarb a Real Challenge to Grow in the Hot Desert

Q. We had a cattle ranch in Glade Park, Colorado, at a 7,000 foot elevation and had a terrific stand of rhubarb that was estimated to be 50+ years old.  We sold the ranch in 2010 and transplanted some starts eventually to Mesquite, Nevada. We have seven starts now and none has produced any usable product.  Some of the starts grew a leaf about the size of a Frisbee but grew no higher than ground level.  The rest of the starts grew a single stock of about 4" high.  Now, the starts looked dormant. Is there anything we should do other than fertilize and water?
Compost pile at the orchard using horse manure

A. We also tried to grow rhubarb at our orchard. We did not have much success. Admittedly, we did not do a very good or thorough job in managing the plants so I was not ready to throw in the towel. The common agreement among gardeners and horticulturists is that rhubarb is out of it’s appropriate climate in the hot desert. This is very true. The common explanation is that the plant doesn’t have enough chill hours or our just too hot climate.
Compost added to plots in the second year
before tilling it in

Just because this is the common agreement does not mean that it is necessarily true. We have grown things at the orchard which are not supposed to grow here. There are some management techniques that we can try to see if we can get it to grow here. There is no guarantee that if we can get it to grow in the hot desert and in our soils or what the quality of the product might be if it is successful.

So the first thing to do is soil improvement. This would mean lots of additional compost added to the soil along with the right fertilizers. So make sure that any compost you use is the highest quality you can find.  This means make it yourself. If you can’t make it yourself, then purchase one that comes in bags that has a good reputation.

Don’t be afraid to add lots of it, over 50% of the blend in the backfill using a native Mojave Desert soil.  Mixed with your garden soil add a high phosphate starter fertilizer. I would also add a good quality iron chelate. This should get your garden soil up to speed. Garden soils amended from desert soils can take a couple of years of growing to get up to prime.
Hoophouse with 30% shade. It does not look like enough
shade but it is about right for flowering/fruiting vegetables
The next thing I would do is try to put it in an area that is not excessively windy and does not have a lot of reflected light or heat. The north or east side of the building would be ideal. I would try it first without any shade over it. If the leaves are scorching during the heat of the summer and the plant seems stunted I would put some shade cloth over the plant.

Do not use more than 30 or 40% shade when purchasing a shade cloth. With leafy crops such as leafy vegetables or rhubarb could go higher but certainly never go into the 60 or 70 percent shade level.

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