In my garden, the first crop of the year to be weeded, fertilized with rich compost, and tucked in with a weed-suppressing mulch is the asparagus. My plants are entering their fifth spring, so this year I get to gather all the spears I want for six whole weeks. The grand fruition of my asparagus patch feels like a celebration, probably because it has taken so long. But when it comes to growing asparagus, good things do come to those who wait.
It gets better. With proper management, my asparagus patch will stay productive for at least ten years, or maybe much longer depending on the satisfaction level of the plants. When you invest time and space in garden asparagus, the returns keep coming for a long, long time.
Adventures in Planting Asparagus
Years ago in one of my first veggie gardens, my garden partner and I spent an entire weekend deep-digging, enriching and planting a large bed of 25 lovely asparagus crowns. Before planting, we soaked the roots in water to plump them up, and the little plants came up like soldiers in spring. But so did a rollicking stand of Johnsongrass, a noxious weed that spreads with wandering rhizomes, and is more than capable of choking out asparagus. Lesson learned: Plant asparagus only in beds that are free of perennial weeds.
In another asparagus planting adventure, I had seen naturalized (wild) asparagus growing in the area, so I mistakenly assumed the plants would like native soil conditions, or maybe I just got lazy. The crowns I planted in minimally-improved acidic clay sulked for two years, until I dug them up and gave them to a friend who had rich, dark soil with a perfect pH of 6.5. The plants took off like rockets!
This time I decided to try seedlings, which I purchased from a local nursery grower. The seedlings were crowded, three to each small container, and dividing them was tedious because the seedlings had become knotted up in one another. After two years of shifting and transplanting, I ended up buying crowns to fill out the patch at proper spacing.
Asparagus planting tradition calls for setting plants in a trench that is gradually filled with soil, a nice but not necessary operation. As long as asparagus is planted 4 inches (10 cm) deep in rich, fertile well drained soil that is free of weeds, in a climate cold enough to keep the plants dormant for at least two months, the plants will move themselves up or down in the soil to find their most comfortable depth.
Caring for Asparagus
New asparagus plantings need two years to fill out, during which time they require periodic weeding and mulching. In the third year plants produce enough spears for picking, though it’s still important to leave behind enough fronds so that the plants become dense with foliage by midsummer. Since the edible parts are the newly emerged stems, or unopened fronds, there are two ways to do this. Most gardeners harvest all spears for six weeks in late spring, and then let the plants grow freely for the rest of the summer. However, you also can allow one or two of the early fronds to grow, which may help energize the plants to produce thick spears for a longer time.
The asparagus patch turns into a ferny hedge in summer, which gradually yellows and dies when winter returns. Asparagus beetles can hide in the withering fronds, so they should be clipped off and composted before the bed is tucked in with a winter mulch of chopped leaves or wood shavings. The growth cycle begins again in late winter, when the bed gets treated to a nourishing blanket of rich compost and straw clipped from winter-weary ornamental grasses.
The beauty of pristine asparagus spears is matched by their impressive nutritional profile. In addition to vitamin C, asparagus provides three unusual nutrients – folacin (good for the liver), rutin (good for the blood) and glutathione, one of the most potent of all plant-based anti-carcinogens. In combination, these and other nutrients in asparagus may help prevent hypertension when eaten regularly. In terms of cooking methods, steaming asparagus preserves more nutrients than grilling, baking or pan-frying.
By Barbara Pleasant