Growing asparagus in your garden requires great care, lots of attention, patience, and time. It is hardly the easiest vegetable to grow, but if you take the time and effort to do it, you will be rewarded with a springtime treat. Fresh asparagus from the garden is one of the tastiest and healthful vegetables you will be able to harvest early in the year.
Asparagus is a hardy perennial and grows wild all over the country. If you plan your asparagus bed well, it will keep coming back for up to thirty years. Besides being very tasty, this vegetable is a great source of nutrition for your family. Asparagus is low in calories and fat and high in vitamins A and C, folic acid, potassium, and fiber.
Before starting your asparagus plot, you will need to select a variety or a few to grow. Typical types of asparagus that are easy to find include Martha Washington, Mary Washington, and Waltham Washington. You may also be able to use newer varieties like Jersey Prince, Jersey Giant, and Jersey Knight.
Not only do you need to select a variety, you also will choose between male and female plants. Asparagus plants are either male or female. Both types produce shoots, but the female plants produce fewer as they expend energy making seeds. The also drop their seeds, producing a clutter of seedlings in the garden, which can become a problem. To get the greatest yield and to avoid the need to weed seedlings regularly, you will want to get all male plants.
Preparing the Bed
The first step to creating a successful asparagus patch for years to come is preparing the bed. Asparagus likes to grow by itself without intrusions by other plants, so set aside a separate plot just for this vegetable. The foliage from the asparagus plants will remain in place throughout the summer and fall, so place the bed on the side of the garden next to plants that might prefer a little shade. The size of the plot is up to you and depends on how many plants you want and how much asparagus you hope to harvest once the bed matures. Each plant, when fully mature, will send out about fifteen or twenty spears. Put in enough plants to feed your family, but also consider growing enough to harvest and store extra asparagus. The spears freeze and can well. The plants will need to be about a foot apart.
Cultivate the soil very well before you get started growing asparagus plants. Weeds can get the better of this plant, so it is imperative that you dig them all out ahead of time. Double dig the soil to get to every last one of them. With the weeds out, you should enrich the soil. Use compost if you have it, but rotted leaves or manure will work as well. Asparagus responds very well in rich, organic soil, so take your time on this part to ensure your bed will produce for years.
It is possible to grow asparagus from seed, but it is tricky and time-consuming. Most people start their beds with plants that are one-year old, called crowns. This cuts down on one year of growing time with no harvest. When you start from seed, you waste a year getting the seedlings to mature into these one-year crowns. If you do choose to go with seeds, you will grow and tend to the seedlings as they mature into crowns. The seedlings are spaced about an inch apart, but must be transplanted to the bed after one year and spaced on foot apart.
If you choose to grow from crowns, you are one year closer to your asparagus harvest. You may see two-year crowns advertised, but they will not give you an advantage. They tend to suffer from shock after transplanting and do not produce spears any sooner than the one-year crowns. Make sure you buy your crowns from a reputable seller to ensure that you get healthy and disease-free plants. Ask around to find a good place to purchase your crowns.
Dig a trench in your established asparagus bed. It should be six inches deep and twelve inches wide. Some swear by soaking the roots of the crowns in compost tea before placing in the trench, but it is not necessary if you have enriched the soil. If you do soak them, leave them in the tea for about twenty minutes. Place the crowns in the trench about a foot apart from each other and cover each one with two inches of soil. Add soil to the plants throughout the season as they start to grow. You don’t want to rush this process as you run the risk of stifling the plants. After the initial layer of soil is put down, you should not need to add more for another two weeks. Eventually, by the end of the season, you should have leveled the trench with soil or created a slight mound.
Water your plants once a week if it does not rain. It is important to not overwater to avoid the formation of crown rot. Do not cut off any shoots that form for the entire first season. You will not get a harvest this year— another good reason to start with crowns rather than seeds. Allow the plants’ foliage to grow and die on its own. This provides valuable food for the growing roots. At the end of winter, cut the dead foliage away. At the end of the second winter, only cut away the larger stalks.
Maintain your asparagus throughout the season by hand weeding and adding compost to keep the soil rich with organic material. Avoid the main pest, asparagus beetle, by keeping the bed clean. If you see any, you can pick them off by hand. Also be sure to get rid of the post-winter foliage because the beetles will lay eggs in it. Rust, another issue with asparagus, is avoided by selecting a resistant variety to plant.
By year three, you will finally be rewarded with delicious asparagus spears. Harvest any spears that are six to seven inches tall. Snap them off while the spears are still tender. Do not use a knife to harvest the spears, as you run the risk of damaging smaller spears and buds. Spears that are not harvested may begin to fern out. This means that the tips of the spears loosen up and fibers form at the bottom. Once they have ferned out, the spears are tough and not good to eat. They also are great places for asparagus beetles to lay eggs, so remove them from the garden and throw them out.
Asparagus is a fantastic vegetable to eat in early spring. Once your bed is mature, it will be one of the first, if not the first vegetable to harvest. Fresh asparagus wilts quickly, so eat it right away or prepare to preserve it. To make it last a day or two in the fridge, place the spears upright in a glass of water.
If a portion of the end of a spear is tough, snap it off. It should easily snap at just the right spot where the toughness meets the tender portion. Some people like to peel the skin from the bottom inch or two before cooking. This is not necessary, but if you choose to do so, use the peelings in homemade stock. They add a delicious flavor to soups.
Many people assume you have to cook asparagus, but it tastes wonderful when chopped into small pieces and tossed into a salad. To cook the spears, you can use just about any method. They retain more of their flavor when steamed, grilled, or roasted. The spears will taste great when combined with many different flavors, but a simple preparation lets their flavor shine. Try grilling or roasting spears and serving with olive oil, a splash of lemon juice, and salt and pepper.
To preserve your extra asparagus, try canning them. They also hold up very well when frozen. To freeze, clean, trim, and blanch for two minutes before storing in a freezer bag. Canning robs much of the flavor from delicate asparagus spears, but it is a valid way to preserve them. Consider pickling and canning for more flavor.