with Ted Smith
It’s almost asparagus season! Gardeners who have an established asparagus bed to harvest from are able to enjoy the earliest fresh garden veggies imaginable. And not only does asparagus beat most other veggies to the punch every spring, it also beats most veggies in the decadently delicious category as well. For the gardeners out there who don’t yet grow asparagus, but wish they did, last week we took a quick look at starting asparagus plants from seed. While growing asparagus from seed is actually quite simple, despite a widespread belief to the contrary, it is also a much slower way to get this gourmet vegetable onto your table. The vast majority of gardeners, including professional growers, tend to prefer buying established crowns (roots) and planting these. Asparagus crowns arrive right around this time of year and are shipped in a dormant state from coolers where they have been held since they were dug last fall. Once they get to you they need to be hydrated and planted as quickly as possible.
We already established where your asparagus bed should go in last week’s column. Now that you have your crowns in hand, it’s time to get to work. Make sure that you have thoroughly tilled a healthy amount of compost or rotted manure into the asparagus bed before you plant. The roots that are going into your garden this spring will still be here for at least another 20 years. Giving them the best possible start now is a critical step. Asparagus also prefers a neutral soil with close to a 7 pH. Amend your soil to get as close to neutral as possible. Also, asparagus really benefits from a potassium boost when it’s getting established so adding a good handful of greensand (for long slow release) or other high potassium natural fertilizer to your planting trenches is a great idea. The planting trenches or holes that you prepare for your asparagus crowns should be about twenty to thirty centimeters deep.
While you are making last minute adjustments to your planting bed, it is a good idea to hydrate your asparagus crowns. I like to soak them in tepid water for an hour or two before planting. Your asparagus crowns are going to look sort of like little vegetable octopi. They will have a circle of tentacle like roots that surround the “head” which is where the spears will grow from. As you plant your asparagus crowns, spread the roots as wide as you can. It may be helpful to make small mounds on which to place the crowns so that the roots can drape down naturally. Be sure the tip of the crown is facing up. You should be able to see small greenish points or buds that will grow to become the very first spears. Even if you accidentally plant some crowns upside down, the spears have a remarkable knack for managing to turn and grow upwards anyway. Try to space your crowns 30 to 40 centimeters apart. In the years to come these tiny roots systems are going to become quite large and will occupy a great deal of space. Overcrowding now, no matter how tempting, may lead to weaker root systems and diminished harvests down the road. After placing your asparagus crowns in their planting holes or trenches, bury them with about ten centimeters of good soil/compost mix. Water the new roots in deeply and keep an eye on them. In a week or two you should notice tiny green spears emerging. At this point most commercial growers will add a little more soil over top and water the bed again. This can be repeated until your planting holes or trenches are completely filled, or even slightly mounded, with soil. Once all the soil has been back-filled into the planting trenches, cover your new asparagus bed with about five centimeters of loose organic mulch. Fine dried grass clippings, shredded dry leaves or coarsely chopped straw will all serve admirably. This mulch will help keep the moisture in while your asparagus plants are getting established. It will also prevent weed seeds from germinating and getting a foothold in this rich new bed. Be very vigilant the first year and allow no weeds or grass whatsoever to get a foothold. This is actually important on an ongoing basis for a really productive asparagus bed but it is absolutely critical in year one while your new plants are getting established.
No matter what, do not harvest any asparagus during the first year of planting. In the second year you can harvest a few spears if any come up at least the size of a pencil. Never harvest anything smaller and only harvest for a couple of weeks during year two. By year three the harvest can be extended generously as long as the spear size remains large. As the spears grow, they will open into fern-like fronds. For some reason many gardeners want to cut these off but it’s critical that they remain to feed and energize the roots. More about this next week.
Just one more week should see us wrap up everything asparagus. Happy growing!