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Growing Asparagus

Growing up on a farm in Northern Michigan, I have many memories of asparagus. Every other morning in May and part of June we picked a half acre of asparagus after the morning chores and before school started. My mother claimed it whittled the waist and kept us limber. With a bucket in one hand I would walk along the left side of each forever long row and fold over from the waist gently bending each stalk until it snapped off in my hand then toss it in the bucket till it runneth over. After empting the load into precariously spaced lugs (low sided wooden boxes), I would continue down the row wondering why people were clamoring to come and buy this stuff.

It was a good time to daydream. Dream about the day I wouldn’t have to pick asparagus ever again. The chatter from one of the many killdeer families that chose to build their nest in the ground of the asparagus patch would sooner or later bring me back to reality. As we picked our last row we would all ask, “What’s for breakfast Mom?”

“Creamed asparagus on toast”, she would reply…no surprises there; during the season we would eat asparagus at just about every meal. Raw, chopped in salads, steamed on sandwiches, steamed with butter and seasonings or topped with cheese. I have blocked out all the other creative ways my mom used to prepare asparagus. I guess asparagus is one of those vegetables a kid can’t really appreciate until she grows up.

Now when I go home to visit and Mom asks what I would like for dinner…I answer with a smile, “how about some of that asparagus”.

Growing Asparagus

Buying asparagus at the store is usually expensive and sometimes tough and wilted; why not grow your own crop? It will give you something to look forward to every year. Once you’ve had fresh home grown asparagus you will wonder why you waited so long.

Planting and growing asparagus is easy once you understand the basics of this perennial vegetable. Here are tips to get you started:

Where to Plant Asparagus:

Choose a sunny site that receives 6 hours of full sun or all day dappled sun that can be left undisturbed for at least 20 years. Asparagus is a perennial vegetable that will reward the gardener each spring with 6 to 8 weeks of harvest. Stop picking after 20 to 25 times and allow the remaining spears leaf out( look like ferns) reaching a height of three to five feet. Although beautiful in the garden they may shade sun-loving plants so keep that in mind when choosing a site.

Soil: Well drained, sandy soil is best.

When to Plant Asparagus:

Early spring as soon as the soil can be worked…when a handful of soil crumbles nicely.

How to Plant Asparagus:

Prepare the bed as far in advance as possible to be sure it is weed and rock free by planting time. Add sand and compost for good drainage, a raised bed gardenworks well.

  1. Dig a trench 12 inches deep by 18 inches wide. If your soil is heavy or has lots of clay don’t dig trench as deep. Add a couple of inches of mixed rotted manure, compost and soil.
  2. On top of that lay the asparagus roots in a zig zag pattern 10” to 12” apart. This forms a wider row of about 2 feet.
  3. Cover roots with a couple inches of soil and water.
  4. Each time the asparagus starts coming through the soil, add two more inches until the trench is once again level with the ground.

Buy crowns that are 2 to 3 years old from a reliable farm store or nursery. The crowns are long with lots of fingerling roots that look like some kind of sea creature.

Fertilizer: Add compost spring and fall.

Harvesting Asparagus:

A full harvest is not permitted until the third year. The rule of thumb is pick none the first year, some the second, tons the third year. When the spears are about the thickness of your finger and tall enough that the head is still tight (6-8” tall) they are ready to pick. Gently bend the spear over until it breaks easily. This way of harvesting leaves the typical tough end you have to cut off from the grocery store in the garden.

After a rain the spears will need to be washed a couple of times in cold water to get the sand and dirt off from under the little triangle leaves on stalk. Give each spear a good sloshing action in the water. A light mulch in the spring should remedy gritty asparagus.

It is always best to eat asparagus while it is fresh but it will last a week in the refrigerator if you bunch the spears with a rubber band and stand them in a container with water in the bottom.

Water: An inch or two per week during the first year then only during dry spells.

Pests: The asparagus beetle is the major pest. This trouble maker usually shows up in April and May so be on the lookout for him and his friends before they become a problem. Kill and destroy organically by hand picking or use an organic pesticide like Rotenone spray.

Companions: Basil and parsley. Read more about Companion Planting

Asparagus Tips:

  • Because asparagus needs a cooling off or dormant period, it is tough to grow in zone 9 and warmer.
  • For heavier soils try ‘Jersey Knight’; for warmer climates ‘Jersey Supreme’.
  • If you love asparagus plant at least 10 crowns per person.
  • Cut the dead asparagus ferns to the ground in late winter or early spring, rake them up and burn or dispose of to kill any leftover pest eggs trying to coast until spring when they can raise havoc.
  • Maintain weed control in the asparagus bed, it is easy to forget about this area of the garden after the harvest is over.

Preserving Asparagus:

The best way to retain flavor and color is by freezing. Canning will give you a fair product. Pickling is a wonderful way to can asparagus and add extra flavor with herbs and spices.

Simple Ways to Prepare Asparagus:

The easiest way is to simply steam the spears, whole or cut up for about 8 minutes or until they are just tender. A little butter, salt, pepper and maybe a splash of lemon and viola!

Cut up raw asparagus and add to salads. Serve spears on a vegetable tray with a dip or make a veggie wrap.

Pick up these supplies at your local TSC Store:

  • Shovel
  • Garden gloves, boots, hats
  • Tiller
  • Seeds
  • Compost
  • Harvest baskets
  • Straw
  • Pesticides
  • Sprayer

By Cindy Shapton