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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

Asparagus


A sure sign of spring at the Nelson house is asparagus on the menu. It's my favorite spring vegetable. One of the first things we planted when we moved into our house nine years ago was asparagus.

Growing asparagus is best reserved for patient people, as a crop cannot be harvested for three years after planting. This frustrates many home gardeners, and is one factor that makes asparagus more expensive in stores, since commercial growers must spend time and money to weed and maintain plots before they yield any asparagus.

Occasionally you may find asparagus seed for sale. The back of one packet I saw said you could expect to harvest asparagus 1095 days after planting (3 years). The first year, the plant primarily develops a crown, or growing point with an extensive root system. The second year, the crown begins to produce a fern-like portion above ground. It isn't until the third year that the characteristic asparagus spears emerge from the crown in the spring and early summer.

Most people choose to plant one or two year old asparagus plants, commonly called roots or crowns, and only have to wait a year or two before their first harvest. We were so excited to harvest our first home-grown asparagus that third year after we planted! But we had to restrain ourselves and only harvest during the first month that the spears were appearing. Plus we only picked some of them in order to let the plants produce abundant above ground growth. As our asparagus bed has matured, we can harvest for roughly six to eight weeks each spring. Nothing from the store matches the taste of asparagus grown in your own backyard!

When growing asparagus at home, look for all male hybrids such as Jersey Knight, Jersey King, and Jersey Giant. These were developed in New Jersey, the 4th largest producer of fresh asparagus. Not only do these all male hybrids yield more, they show resistance to rust and fusarium, common fungal diseases in asparagus.

Asparagus grows best in well-drained, even sandy, soil. Weed control is crucial to developing a good crop. Many myths circulate about applying table salt to asparagus plantings to control weeds. Although it is true that asparagus will tolerate higher salt levels in soil than most weeds, this is a poor weed management strategy. The excess salts inhibit water penetration into the soil, potentially stressing the asparagus plants. It is also very likely that excess salts will leach out of your asparagus bed and affect other plants.

Plant asparagus at the edge of the garden so they are not disturbed when tilling the garden in the spring. A western exposure is the best place for asparagus, so that the tall ferns that develop after the spears do not shade the rest of the vegetable plants. Leave the fern-like growth intact until it turns brown in the fall. Like spring bulbs, the foliage of asparagus helps generate energy for the following year. Asparagus beetles are a common insect pest on the foliage, and can be controlled per label directions with an insecticide specifically labeled for these beetles.

Plants should be fertilized each spring before shoots emerge with 20 to 25 pounds per 1,000 square feet of a balanced fertilizer, followed by another dose after the last harvest. Maintain quality in your harvest by never harvesting every shoot. Let a portion develop ferns to fuel next year's harvest. A well-maintained bed will keep producing each year for 20 years or more.

Asparagus can be harvested either by cutting or snapping the shoots off near the base. Cut shoots will need to be trimmed before cooking to remove the tough fibrous ends. Grasp each spear and gently bend them and they will naturally break where the tough portion begins. If the shoots are harvested by snapping them, trimming is not necessary since they will have already broken where the tougher stem material began.

You may have seen white asparagus for sale, and wonder "How'd they do that?" White asparagus is regular green asparagus that has had soil loosely mounded over the top as shoots emerge. The shoots remain milky white without exposure to sunlight. Of course it's a lot more labor intensive than regular asparagus, so it's more expensive in the store.



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