Asparagus… it’s the first thing I get to harvest from the veggie garden, and it’s the first culinary sign of spring for me. When I see those gorgeous little spears first poking up from the ground it makes me downright giddy!
I love asparagus, and was absolutely thrilled to find out how easy it is to grow, and how little care and attention it really needs, especially considering how expensive it can be at the grocery store! The main things that asparagus needs are time and patience.
Asparagus is a perennial, and you’re unlikely to find seeds for it at any of your typical seed shops and garden stores. You can sometimes find ‘asparagus starts‘ (called crowns) at a big box home improvement store, such as Lowe’s or Home Depot- that’s actually where we got our first batch. Once you get it into the ground, that is your asparagus patch and it is unlikely to yield much of anything for the first couple of years- and even if it does produce, you should resist the temptation to pick anything until year 3. The photo above is of the older of our 2 beds, planted 4-5 years ago. Last year was the first year that we got enough out of it to make more than 1 meal.
Being a perennial, asparagus is more of a garden investment. A package of starts is not cheap like a packet of seeds, but, once it’s planted, you really don’t need to spend any money and you’ll be harvesting from those starts for years to come. You don’t need to go crazy adding stuff to the soil or adding products to care for the beds… heck, they seem to do just fine if you allow them to become completely overgrown after the harvesting time is done!
Now, I mentioned earlier that you shouldn’t pick any spears for the first year or 2, and here’s why. Asparagus starts or crowns are the starter root systems for the plants. An established, mature, and healthy asparagus plant will have a pretty extensive root system, but that takes time to develop. Essentially, you plant the roots, and the plant begins to grow all of that luscious green stuff in the form of spears and ferns. The green stuff allows the plant to turn sunlight into energy, which, in turn, allows the plant to grow its roots. Taking away even a small bit of that green stuff in the first year could spell death for that plant, and in the second year, over-harvesting could negatively impact root growth (sneaking a spear or 2 is fine, but much more than that will likely endanger the plant health). By year 3, the roots are pretty much established, though, and you can harvest to your heart’s content.
There are 2 basic varieties of asparagus that you need to know about: Washington and Jersey. There are different variants on these 2, but there are certain traits that are shared by all Washington varieties, and certain traits that are shared by all Jersey varieties. I’m sure there are others, but these are the only ones I ever see anywhere.
The main thing you need to know is that there are male asparagus plants and female asparagus plants, and wile the females will give us more asparagus plants through the berries they produce during the summer, the males produce the spears that we eat. The variety you choose will have a big impact on the size of your harvest- Washington varieties have more female plants, and Jersey varieties have more males. For this reason, if you are growing asparagus to feed yourself and your family, selecting a Jersey variety is probably your best option.
So, once you’ve chosen your variety, you need to choose and prepare your asparagus bed. Here’s what you need to know about asparagus in order to make the best possible bed for it:
-Choose your space carefully, since those crowns will continue to produce spears for a good 20 years or more! Crowns should be placed 18-24 inches apart, so make sure your bed is large enough to accommodate however many plants you want.
-Asparagus can tolerate some shade, but full sun will help prevent and combat many diseases and will give you better yields.
-Soil should be well drained, since standing water will rot the roots and kill your plants. Asparagus also tends to like a lighter soil, so if your soil has a high clay content like ours, you’ll probably want to add some sand. Compost is optional, but if you have access to it, it can help your asparagus get off to a good start.
-Once it’s established the asparagus will grown thickly enough to choke out most weeds, but for getting it started, you want the bed to be completely cleared of all other vegetation. We weed our asparagus beds weekly in April and May, but by June we just let it do its thing. It may get weeded once in a while, once the rest of the garden has begun demanding the bulk of our attention, but it’s at least a month and more likely 6 weeks between weedings through the summer.
-Asparagus fronds will grow several feet tall, so be sure to plant it somewhere that it’s not going to shade out any of your sun-loving plants.
Okay, so you’ve got your crowns, and the bed is ready to go- now what? The easiest way to do it is to dig a trench, and then put the crowns into the ground so the bottom is 6-12 inches deep. Then you’ll just bury them gently, and give them a good watering. Keep the bed well weeded until the plants have begun to come up, since any weeds that get in there are going to be competing for nutrients, and you want to give your investment the best possible chance of thriving in its new home.
At the end of the garden season, when the asparagus foliage has died off, you will need to cut down the stalks and stems of the plants. Use this, plus some hay, straw, dried grass clippings, etc, to mulch the bed for winter. The following spring, the spears and ferns will grow right up through the mulch.
If you’d like more information on growing asparagus, here are 2 articles that I can recommend:
Good info on site selection and bed prep: http://kgi.org/planting-asparagus-crowns
Good info on growing asparagus from seed, plus potential pests: http://www.organicgardening.com/learn-and-grow/asparagus-growing-guide?page=0,1
Do you grow asparagus or plan to? Do you have any information or tips for growing the best asparagus possible? I’d love to hear from you if you do!