In a few weeks we’ll be planting 1,040 more asparagus roots to add to the 6 beds that are already established. Why more asparagus?
1. It’s the plant that keeps on giving. A crown planted in late winter this year will produce spears for harvesting next year and for the next twenty or so years after that.
2. For farmers it’s a high demand/high margin crop. Plus, its exceptionally drought tolerant – get it through the first year, and you probably won’t need to water again.
3. For consumers, it’s succulent, tender, delicious, and considered a delicacy since ancient times. It is prized as an anti-inflammatory food; it is loaded with antioxidants; it provides digestive support; and it is a great source of fiber and nutrients and is believed to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and cardiovascular disease.
4. For farmers and gardeners alike, it’s a snap! That’s the sound it makes when our granddaughter, Eleanor at three years of age, helped to harvest last spring. Breaking the 6 to 9 inch spear near the base, versus cutting it, is the preferred harvesting method – cutting may spread pathogens. The major pest is asparagus beetle, and they are relatively easy to keep at bay by hand-picking them and dropping into soapy water, or by spraying with Spinosad, a natural product derived from soil bacterium.
The major challenge in growing asparagus organically is weed control. We’re planting eight more beds this winter and have covered the grass with 6 mil black plastic to reduce weed pressure. This also keeps the soil relatively dry so that we can till before planting. After tilling and incorporating a good amount of compost, we’ll dig a 5-6” trench and add rock phosphate for long-term root development. Asparagus likes a relatively high pH, 6.5 to 7.0 and does not grow well in soils below 6.0. Ideally, lime should be added a few months before planting according to soil test results. One-year old crowns will be planted in a single row 5 feet from the adjacent rows and one foot apart within the row. The crowns are not fussy and do not need to be spread out over a mounded hill as some instruct – simply drop the crown into the trench. We’ll cover the crowns to soil level (not half-way as some suggest) but will refrain from tamping – the spears will emerge in about a week. Mulching two to three inches will reduce weed pressure. We’ll help maintain weed control by keeping the aisles covered in black plastic and mulching over that.
Retired Person County Extension Agent, Carl Cantaluppi, has done extensive research on growing asparagus in the Piedmont and recommends the male hybrids developed at Rutgers University with names like Jersey Giant, Jersey Supreme, and Jersey Knight. We’ve planted all three varieties but will stay with Jersey Supreme which has thicker spears and provides more harvest weight in field trials and emerges a few days earlier. Mary Washington is a popular variety in this area, but the Jersey hybrids are three times more productive and do not seed around like Mary Washington.
Today, Andrew mowed down the browned-out fern foliage of established beds. Tomorrow we’ll rake up the debris and burn it to reduce the population of over-wintering asparagus beetles. Next, we’ll weed the chickweed out of the beds, apply feather meal for a slow-release nitrogen boost, and kelp for micronutrients and add any minerals based on the soil test results (phosphorous, potassium, calcium, magnesium). Lastly, we’ll add two inches of mulch to reduce weed pressure and make harvesting the spears, which will emerge in a few weeks, easier. Our harvest window will be about 8 weeks. Many of the plants are reaching their peak production years (years 6 through 11), so, we are anticipating a bountiful harvest this spring.
Novelist, essayist, poet, and fellow farmer (southwest Virginia) Barbara Kingsolver reveres asparagus, writing in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:
An asparagus spear only looks like its picture for one day of its life…The shoot emerges from the ground like a snub-nosed green snake headed for sunshine, rising so rapidly you can just about see it grow…. Europeans of the Renaissance swore by it is an aphrodisiac, and the church banned it from nunneries…. Europeans celebrate the short season of abundant asparagus as a form of holiday. In the Netherlands the first cutting coincides with Father’s day, on which restaurants may feature all-asparagus menus and hand out neckties decorated with asparagus spears…. If we gardeners can, in the same spirit, put our heels to the shovel, kneel before a trench holding tender roots, and then wait three years for an edible incarnation of the spring equinox, who’s to make the call between ridiculous and reverent?
Like Kingsolver we love asparagus – a spring ephemeral but a long-lasting perennial, tender and succulent but tough enough to withstand droughts, a mysterious patchwork of spears in the spring evolving into a virtual forest of dense ferns in summer, a sought-after delicacy that is readily available in your garden or local farmers market (in season). Surely, this is a vegetable to make room for in our garden and on our plate.