So it Begins

asparagus, sprout

Always, it seems, with peas, then radishes and just when you think something must be wrong, the asparagus pops up and you find yourself eating the tender, juicy spears while standing in the garden.  Fat ones like this at the store, you have to peel off the tough outside.  Not so when fresh.

Amish Snap, pea, sprout

Just about the time you have to give you asparagus a rest, the peas and radishes will be coming in — and transplants will be going out. The very transplants that I painfully forced myself to cull yesterday. I want them all to live. But good gardeners are sometimes ruthless gardeners, and that means the strongest, toughest seedlings will be the last ones standing.

Even when it does mean pinching off your little photosynthetic children at the soil line.

Asparagus, king of perennial vegetables

Asparagus fronds and rain drops

Asparagus fronds and rain drops

 

Asparagus: you either love it or hate it.  It’s bitter and sweet, crunchy and juicy.  It’s ready for harvest in the spring before almost any other vegetable.  It’s a gentle diuretic and packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and the eponymous amino acid asparagine.  You can eat it raw or streamed or sauteed, blanched white or natural green.

Asparagus can be planted in almost any growing zone, and a healthy asparagus bed can easy survive and be productive long enough to have a child and watch them graduate from high school.  Or college.  If you have the room to devote to an asparagus bed, you should.  And room they certainly require: about 25 crowns per adult per household just for fresh spring eating.  Crowns should be spaced about 15-18″ apart in rows several feet apart.  If you have raised beds with ample room around the edges, you can plant two or possibly three rows in the bed.  Just remember asparagus needs lots of root space, and the closer you plant them the sooner they will need to be divided.

You can either start asparagus from seeds or purchase crowns.  Either way, you don’t harvest until the third year.  So crowns, while expensive, can save you a year of time — but beds started from seed are often healthier and more productive.

Both the old fashioned standard Mary/Martha Washington and the newer all-male hybrid Jersey Giant are rust resistant.  Personally, I think the old fashioned Mary Washington tastes better and has a tougher constitution, but the all-male hybrids are a more productive in the space they have.  The all-male varieties also don’t reseed themselves.  This is a pro or a con depending on your viewpoint.  If you’d like to expand your asparagus domain quickly or have seeds to share, you want female plants.  Both male and female crowns can be divided in winter and used to start new beds, and when you bed starts to get crowded you want to keep it thinned out for best production.

Unfortunately, the harvest window for asparagus is small.  The first year you harvest, you can only collect spears for two weeks.  The next year 4, and from then on you can harvest for 6 weeks each spring.  But what a harvest.  Asparagus begins to get fibrous and dry as soon as harvested, so grocery store bunches can’t compare to snapping off a spear in the garden and eating the dripping, succulent stalk raw and fresh.

Despite the small tasty spears, asparagus ferns grow up to be tall and a little weedy looking.  Be sure to plant them somewhere they won’t shade out other vegetables that need sun or will be at risk of overspray from herbicides.  Once the spears have turned brown in the fall, remove them and burn them or otherwise discard to reduce pest and disease pressure.  Fall is also the best time to thoroughly weed the bed.

Those with limited garden space will want to indulge their asparagus habit at the farmer’s market.  Those with room, though, will find this king of perennials amply pays you back for the upfront cost investment by producing the best quality spears you can find year after year for a very minor time investment.

(By Nicole Castle)