The joy of rhubarb

Tantalizingly tart rhubarb pie, many people insist, is one of the tasty treats of summer.


However, opines Marcia Hawkins, co-owner of Uncle John’s Home and Garden, in Olmsted Falls, there’s a lot more to rhubarb than meets the pie.

“Rhubarb is such a versatile and underused vegetable,” Marcia says. “It can be utilized in so many ways, like rhubarb wine, rhubarb cookies, barbecue sauce and all kinds of rhubarb desserts.”

Rhubarb, in fact, has enough delectable uses to fill up a 245-page book. The book, The Joy of Rhubarb, is available for purchase at Uncle John’s.

“Rhubarb is an excellent plant for Northeast Ohio gardens,” Marcia says. “It’s a perennial that will come up every year, and it’s fairly easy to grow.”

It’s fun to grow, too, she says. But harvesting and eating the vegetable—many people incorrectly assume it’s a fruit—may be even more fun.

As explained in The Joy of Rhubarb, the plant’s stalks can be used alone in recipes, or they can be blended with many fruits, like strawberries, which add sweetness to contrast with rhubarb’s tartness. Interesting recipes include breads, salsas, refreshing beverages and main dinner dishes.

Uncle John’s, which includes 20 acres of gardens, greenhouses and a retail gift barn, has become a must-visit home and garden center since Uncle John Hawkins and his family purchased it in 1974. The 90-year-old greenhouses, which are among the last remaining in Cuyahoga County, are nostalgic reminders of Northeast Ohio’s rich agricultural tradition. They grow annuals, perennials, herbs, houseplants, tropicals and flowering trees and shrubs that are distributed throughout five states, as well as for on-site retail.

Herbs that are used for cooking and home remedies are a staple at Uncle John’s. Prompted by Northeast Ohio’s increasingly unpredictable spring weather, Uncle John’s this year began a new system for “hardening off” its young greenhouse plants. Hardening off is the annual process of gradually exposing greenhouse grown seedlings to the outdoor climate to become acclimated before they are planted in a garden.

“For 25 years we’ve hardened off plants by putting them outside on a heated cement pad,” Marcia explains.

This winter, Uncle John’s invested in new enclosures that protect the plants from hard rains from above, while allowing the sides to be opened or closed according to the outdoor climate.

“It gives us a better opportunity to make the plants we sell tougher and stronger to withstand the weather, which is important if we get a cold snap in May,” Marcia says.

More than 90 percent of the plants Uncle John’s sells are grown right on-site, so you can be assured they are already naturalized to Cleveland weather, she says. Almost all of them are catalogued on the garden center’s website.

“Our website is a wonderful resource that includes photos and descriptions of all of our plants, including tips on where to plant them, how to care for them and how tall and wide they are expected to grow,” Marcia says.

Uncle John’s also ships items from its quaint gift shop—such as bath and body products, books, candles, garden accessories and fairy garden supplies—all of which are also conveniently catalogued online.