This quarantine business is getting old, isn’t it? The days are getting longer and the weather is getting nicer, but we’re supposed to stay home. What are we supposed to do, watch more television?
Or we could do more constructive things with our at-home time, like expand our gardening from daffodils and tomatoes into asparagus.
Asparagus is challenging. To begin with, it’s not going to produce edible sprouts for two or three years – but once you’ve got a bed producing, you’ve really got something.
It might help to know what asparagus is. Is it a root, like a potato? A leaf, like lettuce? A fruiting body, like a tomato? A stem, like kohlrabi? We’re getting warmer with that last one.
Asparagus is a fern, and the reason it doesn’t look like other ferns is that the stems we eat are immature fern fronds which would have grown into the big leafy things at the back of the patch. After the asparagus season, you’ll allow more fronds to mature fully, and in a few years your asparagus bed will look like Jurassic Park.
Early every spring you’ll get really fresh sprouts – and it will happen every Spring as asparagus is a perennial that will grow stems year after year for as long as two decades. Cheaper than the stems you find in the store, and much fresher than ones which have been sitting in plastic bags while they’re shipped to Oregon from California or much farther away.
Don’t be afraid of starting an asparagus bed. Oregon State University’s Extension Service has horticulturists who are ready to help you become a confident asparagus grower.
Find a sunny spot where your asparagus won’t be shaded out. Make sure that smaller plants nearby won’t be shaded out by the asparagus plants when they are fully grown. Remember what I said about Jurassic Park –full-grown, they’ll be five or six feet tall.
You can plant asparagus from seed, but you don’t have to. Most asparagus is grown from year-old plants trimmed down to an octopus-like “crown” which should be planted about three weeks before the forecast date of the last Spring frost. Look the crowns over as though you were buying fresh vegetables: don’t buy anything that looks dried out or that has any bad spots. Take them home and plant them, or keep them moist between wet paper towels until you can plant them.
Dig the bed good and deep, at least a foot (30cm), amending the soil with plenty of rotted-down compost or other organic supplements. Make sure the soil has a pH between 6.5 and 7.0and add lime if it is too acidic. Remove all weeds – asparagus is a relatively primitive plant and doesn’t compete well with weeds.
When you’re ready to plant your crowns, dig a trench about half as deep as you dug to turn up the soil, six inches or 15cm. Spread out the roots of the crowns and place them about a foot apart, spreading their roots like ballerinas who have dropped all the way to the floor. Shower dirt down over them and bury the crown about two inches (5cm) below the surface. When their buds break the surface, drop a little more dirt over them, keeping the tip of the bud above the surface, water it frequently, and keep this up all spring and summer.
Don’t harvest the spears that come up the first spring. These must grow up and become the tall Jurassic fern fronds which will provide the energy for next year’s sprouts. The next year, you can pick some for the first week, but after that, let them grow. In all following years, harvest sprouts until the middle of June. Fertilize every spring when you see the first sprouts, and again in the middle of June. You might want to set Midsummer’s Day – aka June 21 – as the occasion for the last asparagus harvest and the second fertilizing of the asparagus patch. It’s a convenient way to remember the changeover, and a symbolically appropriate date.
When spears have grown 5-8 inches (10-20cm) long, it’s time to harvest. Reach down to the base and bend them toward the ground. The spear will snap off in its fiber-free part. You could also cut it with a knife, but that’s not as good, because you are likely to damage the smaller spears. Once you have the spears in hand, you need to eat them or preserve them right away. You can freeze asparagus, but it’s frequently mushy when it’s thawed. You’ll do better to pickle it. Check out the OSU pamphletaboutPickling Vegetables.
Let’s get back to what we were discussing at the beginning: raising asparagus is more than just cheaper and tastier than buying it at a grocery store. The act of growing your own can help you to feel a closer connection with your own food, and with the machineries of the planet which keep us all alive, and with the Universe in general. The act of keeping your own garden, even a small one which provides only a minute amount of your food, has been a tremendous help to many people in ordering their thoughts and opening their minds to new ones.
One more thing: when eating asparagus, do keep in mind this advisory from that most scientific of our founding fathers about a harmless but conspicuous feature of it: