Being Committed to Asparagus

If you are the type of person that responds to commitment negatively, that might find yourself in Nepal next summer, or you are not even sure you can stand living where you are for another few years, you might want to move on to another crop. Asparagus takes a lot of time and commitment.

Asparagus Crown: you will be able to tell where the previous years growth was snipped off, which you plant upward. Spread the roots out evenly and bury according to your variety.

If you start from crown starts, you have two years before you can begin really harvesting those delicious spears. If you start from seed, add another year.

But if you have ever eaten fresh asparagus from the garden (or wild harvested as I did when I was a young child), you will realize why people go through the trouble. It is a world of difference from purchasing asparagus from the store.

Aside from the time commitment, asparagus is pretty straight-forward. It does like to be fed, and also prefers it’s own space. My biggest suggestion is to create a large raised bed or very large, deep container you can devote specifically to asparagus (and I mean large). Basil is actually a good companion that won’t swamp the bed nor draw too much nutrition from the soil, so if you don’t want to waste all that space on asparagus, plant with basil.

Purple Asparagus

I really suggest starting with asparagus crowns. It’s just easier. If you are up to the challenge, go ahead and start from seed. Sow seeds about 2 months before the last frost date.

Crowns will be treated differently depending on what kind you get. Old fashioned open-pollinated varieties need to be planted very deep–about a foot of soil should be over the crowns. If you have one of the newer hybrids, like the  all male varieties, you only need to plant about half that deep. Crowns are generally planted in the fall in arid climates where winters are not too harsh (like where I live in Tucson). In cold winter regions, you plant them in spring.

Don’t forget, asparagus gets huge when growing. Put to the north of plants you don’t want to shade.

What asparagus really wants for the first two years is balanced nutrition. And maybe even more layers of mulching than I usually suggest. Soil should be slightly sandy. If you can manage it, add some sand but always beware with sandy soil, you will need to apply food more often as nutrients don’t stick around as long in high drainage soils. This isn’t AS true with very, very well amended beds that are continually mulched and side dressed with compost. But just keep an eye on things. And worrying about having to feed more is better than plants sitting in clay soils where they will not do well.

Harvest asparagus by snapping off at base. Use snippers if you wanna be all tool-oriented.

If planted from crowns, do not harvest spears until the third spring of the life of your asparagus, when the plant is two years old. Spears will emerge before that, and tend to be skinny. By waiting you are building up the plant’s resources. The first few years, the spears are not all that wonderful anyway. On that third spring, harvest only the thick spears. Once they start getting skinny, later in that season, let them grow. Those spears, which by this time you will already know, develop into very large, ferny plants. They take up a lot of space. They can sometimes look a little beat up in summer too, as that fine foliage can get a little brown from the heat. So give this plant room. And don’t make it the centerpiece of your landscape. Well-watered, fed plants don’t get brown unless there are salts in the soil (buildup from our water that collects, especially in containers, or fertilizers, or other errant chemicals).

Also, keep asparagus beds well-weeded. Weeds suck up resources from the soil that your asparagus needs. If you mulch as I always suggest, you will have little trouble save for some grass seedlings that sometimes come from the hay (and are super easy to remove).

A closer look at the base of developed asparagus stems.

Full sun is great for asparagus. If you want to lessen some of that browning of the foliage, you can do part sun. But do not put asparagus in a location that gets less than 5 hours of direct sun. Be careful not to swamp other plants or shade out those that need more sun.

On the second year you have your asparagus plants growing, emphasize the nitrogen a little (more fish emulsion). The product you want, the spears, are vegetative. Remember that vegetative growth is supported more by nitrogen while roots and reproductive growth (flowers, fruit) are supported by phosphorus.

Very few pests ever bother asparagus save for the occasional aphids which is easy to control (spray plants with a hard jet of spray or use safer soaps or neem if things get really crazy).

Asparagus doesn’t love containers, but there are conveniences to growing them this way. Choose the largest and deepest containers possible.

Don’t pick asparagus until you intend on eating it, and don’t ruin it by over-cooking. It is super nutritious and SOOOO GOOD.

Seeds of Change sells crowns of come of the hubrids like sweet purple or Jersey knight. Burpee sells a few other hybrids and also the old fashioned Mary Washington. If you get serious and want to grow asparagus from seed, become a member of Seed Savers Exchange and see what they have from year to year (and they always have the largest selection of most vegetable heirloom varieties). They have about 6 in this year’s member catalog (which is as thick as a phone book).

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