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Intrepid Urban Farmer: All About Asparagus

Spring is here!  Finally.  I don’t care what the weather does now, it is still Spring. I am excitedly anticipating gardening in 2014. Snow if you like, Mother Nature, I am ignoring it.
 
The first signs of spring are, of course, perennial crocuses, daffodils, and various narcissi. But, all true vegetable gardeners know that the real game starts with the asparagus patch! As asparagus is a perennial, it is the first sign that the gardening season has truly begun. It is the best possible introduction! While I am starting seedlings in the house and finding the right opportunity and weather to plant radishes and lettuces outside, I can enjoy fresh asparagus with hardly any effort at all.
 
Now, of course, I did spend time about ten years ago starting my asparagus patch. It was something of a production to get it planted, and it did take about three years of waiting to finally be able to enjoy it to its full capacity, but the end payoff is well worth it. I barely have to spend any time on it to keep it producing beautifully. It is one of the best, most valuable things you can do with your time gardening. 
 
Site location is probably the most important thing to consider when planning an asparagus bed. First off, it’s going to be there a long time. Pick a spot where you know it can remain undisturbed. Full sun is very important, as is rich, loamy, well-drained soil. The asparagus roots are vulnerable to rot if there isn’t suitable drainage. Secondly, decide what variety of asparagus you would like to plant. There are many varieties; heirloom, newer hybrids, male or female. I honestly cannot remember what variety I have planted.  It was a long time ago and I wasn’t quite as engaged with the details of gardening as I have become. I do know that I have both male and female plants. The female plants produce slender, finer spears and also yield seeds in the form of red berries that appear toward the end of the season. Male spears are larger and more robust (go figure).   Little roots, which are called “crowns” are grown from seed and are generally a year or two old. This is what you will need to order from your favorite catalogue or garden store. Jackson Florist and Garden Center in Latonia is carrying the variety “Jersey Knight” this year.
 
The process of planting asparagus has a few steps. Dig a trench six to twelve inches deep and about a foot wide. Put a nice, thick layer of compost or rotted manure in the bottom and work it in. Mound up a little ridge in the trench and lay each crown on top, spreading the roots around and over it in a spider-like configuration. Space them about eighteen inches apart. For one or two people, I would plant twenty-five crowns. Fill in the trench only until it covers the crowns by and inch or two. As the crowns grow, continue to fill in the trench only a couple of inches at a time. Ultimately, you will have it completely filled in.
 
Now, here is where a lesson in character-building begins. After all of your diligent, attentive work, you have to exhibit an unusually cruel level of patience. Absolutely NO harvesting on any spears for at least two years! No exceptions! The root system needs to develop and is fed by the growth that you most certainly will allow to happen. Remember all of that work? Do you want to screw it up with weak resolve? I didn’t think so! I believe all asparagus growers are of good character and this is why. We have walked the walk. We have successful asparagus beds.
 
Now, not to be all Calvinist about it, even though you have resisted temptation (and you did harvest a VERY modest amount on year three), you will receive a wonderfully hedonistic reward. In the following years you will be able to harvest the freshest, most delicious asparagus you have ever had in your life. I am not kidding. I can’t eat asparagus from the grocery store any more. It is that bad. Fresh asparagus from the garden really doesn’t even need to be cooked! You will have so much of it that you even honestly get tired of it. Think of that!
 
The cycle of your crop is this:
 
Your asparagus is left to grow wild and crazy your first year. Leave the wild overgrowth in place to overwinter and help protect the plants. You will also do this at the end of the second year and every growing season hence.
 
In the spring, when the ground starts to heat up, cut last year’s dead growth down to the ground and get rid of it.  You can compost it, but it’s pretty woody and a few run overs with the lawn mower will chip it up and allow it to rot a little faster if you’re doing that.
 
Your new crop will start coming up out of the ground looking just like you would imagine it to. Asparagus spears spring from the ground with a life force you cannot believe. In one day’s time, a spear can grow practically a foot! Keep an eye on it…daily. AFTER YEAR TWO, snap off the stems, or use a knife to cut them. Eat them. When the spears start to get a little spindly looking and the heads are not as full and closed, let it go for the season. You should get about six weeks of culinary joy. Oh, and your trips to the bathroom will have a decided aroma too. Every pleasure seems to have a price.
 
Always keep your patch well-weeded and mulched. Because it does grow quite a bit after the harvest season, the overgrowth does tend to shade the roots, so it’s not as difficult to keep weeded as you might think. I have used straw to mulch, but I just had a thought. Asparagus does well with a slightly higher pH. Pine straw, which sweetens acidic soil might be a better idea. I think I’ll try that this year. But I’ll do a spot check of the pH there to be on the safe side. Be sure to keep your bed watered and side-dressed periodically with good rotted manure or compost, and perhaps a little blood meal (nitrogen).  
 
I hope you will try to start an asparagus bed for yourself. I believe it is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done in gardening. Certainly my character has improved. It has helped me discover that zone somewhere between patience, and “idle hands are the devil’s playground”!
 
Previously in The Intrepid Urban Farmer: All About Seeds & All About Tomatoes & All About Bugs & All About Dirt

The River City News is proud to produce this regular feature column, "The Intrepid Urban Farmer". Every couple weeks, our local expert will offer tips, stories, and more for the urban gardener. Questions for The Intrepid Urban Farmer? Email: [email protected]   

Photo: Asparagus seeds/via Jackson Florist