by Ted Smith
It is difficult to imagine a vegetable that is more prized or sought after than fresh succulent asparagus. One of the first vegetables to show up in the garden every spring, a well managed asparagus bed continues to produce for a month or two each year. As for versatility, asparagus is difficult to match. Equally at home on the breakfast table or served for dinner, asparagus is considered by many to be the king of all vegetables. Not only can asparagus be served at any meal and with nearly any other food, it can also be prepared in a myriad of ways. Unbeatable eaten fresh and raw right in the garden, asparagus can also be steamed, baked, sauteed, BBQ’ed, boiled, stir fried, juiced or pickled. The short list revolves around ways asparagus can’t be used, and it’s a very short list.
With all this versatility in the kitchen, we’re fortunate that asparagus is equally anxious to please us in the garden. With just a little care during the planting of your asparagus, you can easily see twenty years of productivity. Since asparagus is such a long-lived perennial, it is most important that you situate your bed in an area that you will be happy with for a couple of decades.
First, asparagus does not like wet feet. Good drainage is one of the most important factors to consider when situating your asparagus bed. Sandy soil is preferred for this very reason. A lot of people will also go that extra step and create raised beds for a little extra insurance.
Sunshine is also an important consideration. Asparagus beds benefit from as much sunshine as they can get. I do know of some very productive beds that get by with just half days of sun but more light will definitely lead to stronger plants and bigger harvests.
Next, always bear in mind that asparagus hates weed competition. Try to keep your bed small enough that it remains manageable and weed free. The difference in harvest size between weed choked beds and clean weed free beds is remarkable.
Another consideration for asparagus is soil fertility. Since this long-lived plant will be in one place for many years it is a really good idea to properly amend the soil in its new bed before planting. After this the only feeding you will be able to provide is through surface applications of compost or manure. To prepare your asparagus beds you can either add a couple of inches of rich compost or well rotted manure and till this in, or you can wait and add this material to the bottom of the planting trenches that you will eventually be making.
When planting asparagus, you will have a couple of options. You can start plants from seed with the understanding that it will be three or four years before you can harvest any spears. The other option is to buy established roots which can be planted and often harvested from as early as their second year. Roots (crowns) are generally available as two or three year-old stock. I personally prefer the two year-old roots as asparagus becomes slightly more difficult to transplant with each passing year. I have tried both and found no advantage to spending more for the extra year’s growth.
Starting asparagus from seed is very easy. Simply fill a seed starting flat or tray with sterile seed starting mix. Poke asparagus seeds into the mix approximately one centimeter apart in all directions. The seeds should be covered by their own depth in soil and then tamped down. Water the tray until it is evenly moist but not wet. Cover it with a humidity dome or plastic wrap and place it somewhere warm until tiny (and I do mean tiny) spears can be seen emerging. At this point move the tray to bright light and remove the cover. These baby asparagus can be grown until all danger of frost has passed and then they can be pricked from the tray and planted into their new bed. After a couple years worth of growth the new asparagus will begin to flower. Any plants that produce red berries by late summer are females and many gardeners remove these plants as they are less productive than males. I have never taken the time to do this in my large beds but for a home gardener looking to maximize space it is a good idea. The empty spot that you have created by removing the female plants can be filled in with new babies and the cycle will continue until you have a highly productive all male asparagus patch.
Resist the urge to harvest asparagus spears from seed started plants for at least two years. After this, harvest sparingly for another year or two. Pick only spears that are at least as fat as a pencil and leave anything smaller to grow or you will exhaust your plants and end up with very weak roots.
And as usual, we are out of space so please come back next week when we will try to wrap this up.