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Ode to asparagus

There are many reasons to discuss this wonderful plant asparagus.

It buds and comes to life each spring, a fine and tasty, delicious thing.

Like tulips, asparagus is a sure-fire sign that spring has sprung. The first offerings that Mother Nature gives us after a long, cold, dreary winter is the vibrant green shoots of color and flavor that gets the vegetable season off to a wonderful start.

Asparagus (asparagus officialis) is a perennial plant and is a member of the Liliaceae family that includes onion, leeks, and garlic. Asparagus thrives in a well dug, well-aeriated soil with a pH between 6.5 and 7.5 with a target of 7.0.

It is said that you can’t overfeed asparagus but try anyways. It has a hunger for nitrogen and enjoys a good portion of Potassium and Phosphorus. Most of this is found in a good compost but can also be found in leaf mold and well-aged manures.

If you are ambitious and like to stretch your green thumb, asparagus can be started from seed, but transplanting established crowns seems to be the most common means of getting asparagus into your mouth much quicker and easier.

To start from seed, begin with a top-quality soil-less starter mix. I recommend the compost, peat moss, and vermiculite blend (1/3 each by volume) better known as Mel’s mix. Mel’s mix is the recipe that Mel Bartholomew promoted and is still used in the Square Foot Gardening Method. This blend of components gives you a balanced pH, a good blend on nutrients and micronutrients all the while providing good soil moisture retention and drainage. The mix does not compress easily and maintains good void structure for proper root development. Plant seeds about ¾ inches deep and keep soil temperature between 75 – 80 degrees F, plants should appear in about 2 – 3 weeks. After plants have emerged, temperatures should be kept between 60 -70 degrees F. Start seeds about 90 days before you expect to transplant. To plant, dig a furrow that is deeper than the seedling is tall. You will want the center of the furrow to be higher than the sides to provide good drainage. Set the young seedling in the center of the furrow at the higher point and lightly cover the roots and continue to add more soil covering as the plant grows. Be careful not to bury any smaller shoots or ferns. Continue to monitor and fill as needed until the furrow is level with surround ground. You will need to be patient and not harvest shoots until at least the third year to maintain sustainability.

Established crowns are the more common means of getting asparagus in your garden established. Crowns should be planted in a 5-8-inch-deep furrow that allows the center of the crown to be higher than the trailing roots, this allows good drainage for the plant while developing, about 3-4 weeks before the last frost date in your area.

Asparagus is found around trees and in fence lines in the country and this makes one think that it is a low maintenance plant that can be forgotten about and it will tend to itself, this is not true at all. One of the most detrimental things we can do to asparagus is pamper it in the spring, cut off its shoots, enjoy a bountiful harvest and then forget it. Asparagus should never be delegated to a remote place in our gardens or yards, it need to have attention year-round for best production. Asparagus considers every plant that grows in the same area as it does competition. In fact, there really are no good companion plants for asparagus, nutrients, water, and sunlight are all necessary for a healthy crop of asparagus.

I suggest that the “King of Spring” be planted in some of your best garden conditions and given all the special attention you can. Keep weeds and grass at bay, protect the base of the plants with a good compost, side dress with a good natural fertilizer, and water just as you do the rest of the garden. Apply a layer of straw mulch in the fall and remove in the spring as shoots start to appear.

As mentioned earlier, asparagus needs a couple of years to develop before you start any type of harvesting. For seedlings, wait at least 3 years, crowns can start to be harvested after 2. Don’t be overly aggressive the first couple of harvests, leave plenty of shoots to develop into ferns and that is what the plants need to grow stronger and develop healthier plants that will return year after year.

Harvest the spears when they are about 3/8 of an inch in diameter, 10-12 inches tall, while heads still have tight buds as loose buds result in stringy spears, and by cutting off the spear about an inch below the soil surface.

End of the season care for asparagus includes cutting back the fern growth to about ground level, check garden pH to ensure it is around that 7.0 area, add about 3 inches of compost and then a thick (6 inch) covering of straw, which will be removed again in spring.

My best appreciated varieties of asparagus include the all-male varieties that include the word “Jersey” in the name. (Jersey Supreme, Jersey Knight, and Jersey Giant) These varieties do not produce seedlings, like the open pollinated varieties of Martha Washington and Mary Washington, from the red-berried seeds of female plants that basically compete with the asparagus plant and need to be hoed out during the growing season.

Although asparagus is only with us for a short period of time in the spring, the work we do the rest of the year will more than pay us back in spring excitement and taste that has taken an entire winter to produce.

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