July 9, 2008

All About Asparagus

Growing asparagus is easy. I bring this up because lately I have read several articles geared towards beginning gardeners which discouraged growing asparagus in favor of, say, beans. This is wrong.

Granted, you need a bit of patience, as the first year you don't get a crop, and the second year you get just a taste. You need to let the roots develop and build up strength those first two years. After that, however, you have 6-8 weeks each spring where you can pick asparagus almost every day. There is nothing as wonderful as having all the fresh asparagus you want.

To begin, you need the standard resources for any worthwhile gardening project--a suitable plot of land, a strong back, and a weak mind. There is a certain amount of heavy labor involved to do it right. Personally, I enjoy digging holes and trenches, but I suppose you could hire a teenager if there's one handy.

The process is called "double-digging". You start by removing the top 12" -18" of soil in a trench and piling it to the side, amending it with compost if needed. You then loosen the next 18" with a digging fork, and incorporate in all the compost and organic material you can get your hands on. This will be the basis for a bed that could last over 20 years, so don't stint! The asparagus roots you obtained from the nursery are laid in the trench and covered lightly with soil. As the asparagus grows, you add the reserved soil bit by bit, backfilling until the plot is again level.

That's it. Once the roots are established, each spring they send up spears, as pictured above. You snap them off at ground level to harvest. When the spears start looking thinner, signalling that the reserves in the roots are dwindling, you stop harvesting. This usually coincides with the advent of warmer weather. At this point I topdress the bed with more compost/organic fertilizer and mulch heavily with straw. Aside from a deep watering if the weather is very dry, I'm done as far as care goes for the rest of the year.

Here are the spears a few days after I stopped picking in early June this year--you can see how each of the scales at the tip of the spear branches out:

Here's the bed about a week later. It grows very rapidly at this point:

And here's the asparagus bed last week. ( In the foreground are gladiolas and cannas.) The fronds will get fuller and taller as the summer progresses, topping out at about 6 ft. After frost in the fall they will slowly turn brown. In late winter I will cut them back and compost them, and the cycle will being again.

Few things in life are more rewarding than an asparagus patch.


Diane D. said...

When we moved into our house 10 years ago there was a small asparagus bed. We've since changed that area of the yard, and even put sod down over the asparagus. The asparagus grew right through it! The asparagus is now in the middle of a lawn area, but we just leave it out of admiration for such determination.

Sue Reno said...

That makes sense,Diane--it's a very decorative plant. You can pretend you meant to do that!