Growing Asparagus

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Fresh picked home grown asparagus

Like most other perennial vegetables, growing asparagus is easy to do. It takes a bit of effort to get started, but is nearly maintenance free once established. It's hardy, requires little care and the plant will produce for decades.

Fresh asparagus has an intense, almost nutty flavor that is "just what the doctor ordered" after a winter of frozen and canned vegetables.

A skillet of asparagus spears sauteed in a 50/50 blend of olive oil and sesame oil, with a sprinkling of sesame seeds, is a special treat I look forward to every spring.

Growing Asparagus - Description

home grown asparagus spear

If you talk to anyone who has experience with growing asparagus, the first thing they usually tell you is how tough the plants are.

Asparagus is a hardy perennial vegetable that can tolerate a variety of soil conditions. The exception being very wet soil. It tolerates drought once established, and you can count on it to produce every year. Mature stems are woody, grow 4-5 feet high and leaves are feathery or fern-like in appearance.

Young spears for harvesting have not developed branches or leaves, can vary in diameter from the size of a pencil to an inch, and grow very quickly. From the time they break the soil surface to when they reach harvest size (8-9 inches) can be 1-3 days depending on air temperature.

Growing Asparagus - Varieties

Asparagus has been improved considerably over the years from the original wild plants. The original domesticated varieties like "Mary Washington" grow larger spears than their wild cousins, but have both male (pollen bearing) and female (fruit bearing) stems. Male spears are generally larger and thicker, so are the most desirable ones for harvesting.

More recently, all male varieties like "Jersey Knight" and "Jersey Giant", have been introduced, and they outproduce older varieties by double or more.

Some "novelty" varieties, like "Purple Passion" are purple colored when they grow, but turn green when cooked. Although interesting to look at, they generally don't produce as heavily as the all male green varieties.

White asparagus is actually created when any green asparagus variety is blanched. Blanching means that the spears are covered with organic material while they are growing. They have to be uncovered, picked and then covered right back up every day during harvest or they will start turning green in the sunlight...Seems like an awful Lot of work!!

Growing Asparagus - Planting and Care

Actively growing asparagus bed

If you are interested in growing asparagus, there are two ways to get started.

Plants can be grown from seed, but doing so is fairly labor intensive, and delays harvest an additional year.

Due to the long life of asparagus and the fact that you don't get a good harvest for the first couple of years, I recommend buying 1 year old crowns.

This gives you a year head start over growing from seeds.

You can buy started crowns from most reputable local nurseries, mail order nurseries, and in the spring all the "super stores" seem to have them too.

Asparagus likes well drained soil, but will grow in nearly any soil that is not constantly wet. It prefers neutral to slightly alkaline conditions. A pH of 7.5 is ideal. If the soil pH is below 6.0 your asparagus will not do well, and you may need to add lime to the soil to "sweeten it up". Don't use peat moss as a surface mulch or soil amendment as it is too acidic (I tell you this from personal experience...)

Plant asparagus crowns in the spring after soil temperatures are above 50°F. Plants should be spaced about 18 inches apart. Rows should be spaced about 5 feet apart. Start by digging the bed deeply - at least 18 inches deep, and work in a good amount of compost.

When the soil is light, and can be worked easily by hand, make a trench the length of the row about 12 inches wide and about 6 inches deep. Make a mound of soil the length of the trench about 4 inches high, and place plants crown up, with the roots draping down over each side of the mound. Cover the crowns no deeper than 1-2 inches. If the plants are deeper than that, productivity will drop off.

To give your plants a kick start, work some super phosphate fertilizer into the mound at a rate of about one cup per plant before placing the crowns.

My asparagus bed in dormant stage

After harvest time has passed, cut off all remaining spears even with the ground, and let all new growth after that grow through the summer and into fall.

The greenery that you leave will produce the energy for the roots to make the following year's harvest.

Although it's not necessary, I always leave the old growth in place until right before the next year's spears start to emerge. This helps trap and hold blowing leaves in the fall and snow in the winter.

This seems to help protect the plants through the winter and early spring.

Your plants will also appreciate a 2 inch layer of compost in the fall or early spring.

Growing Asparagus - Harvesting Asparagus

Ready to pick asparagus spears

Growing asparagus begins to pay off when the spring soil temperatures hits about 50°F. That's when the first spears begin to appear.

Asparagus spears grow very quickly, and the warmer the air temperature gets, the faster they grow. Early in the season they may reach picking size in about 3 days.

Towards the end of the season you will probably have to pick every day.

Pick your asparagus in the early morning when the air is still cool. We keep ours in the refrigerator with the broken ends in a large cup or glass of water - just like you would keep a bouquet of flowers in a vase.

They seem to stay fresh and crisp longer that way, and allows you to accumulate enough for a meal. Even using this method, we try to eat them within a week.

When spears reach about 9" high, snap them off near the ground. Don't cut them off below ground, as this can damage other spear buds before they break the soil surface. If a spear grows a day too long, the base will become woody or fibrous. You can still get some good from it though. Just work your way up the spear, bending all the way up until it snaps off. The part that breaks off is still good to eat.Don't harvest any spears the year that you plant your asparagus. All the top growth should be left in place to allow the plants to get established. Greenery makes the energy and food that promotes root growth. Better root growth makes for a bigger, better harvest the following years. In the first harvest year, only pick spears for about 2-3 weeks, every year after that you can pick for 6-8 weeks.

Fresh asparagus is a spring treat that I look forward to every year. I'm usually craving fresh greens after a long winter, and asparagus is one of the first green vegetables that will satisfy that craving. If you're interested in growing asparagus, you need to that it's not particular about it's soil conditions, produces for decades, is high in vitamin c and other nutrients, tastes great and is easy to grow. It just requires a bit of patience to get it started.

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