In her book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” the story of her family’s move from the factory-farm pipeline of Tucson, Ariz., to a farm in southern Appalachia where they eat only from their own garden and those of local growers, Barbara Kingsolver writes about asparagus:
“From the outlaw harvests of my childhood, I’ve measured my years by asparagus. I sweated to dig it into countless yards I was destined to leave behind, for no better reason than that I believe in vegetables in general, and this one in particular. Gardeners are widely known and mocked for this sort of fanaticism. But other people fast or walk long pilgrimages to honor the spirit of what they believe makes our world whole and lovely. If we gardeners can, in the same spirit, put our heels to the shovel, kneel before a trench holding tender roots, and then wait three years for an edible incarnation of the spring equinox, who’s to make the call between ridiculous and reverent?”
I’ve never grown asparagus, but that is about to change. I love to eat it, yet stop short of buying it at the grocers when I read the fine print on the rubber band that binds the spears: “Product of Peru.” I know spears with that many food miles cannot compare in flavor with the locally grown, just-picked asparagus sold in early May at the local farmers’ market. What I don’t know is what may have been sprayed on that Peruvian asparagus.
Why should we want to eat asparagus every month of the year? It should be the first fresh taste of spring, a celebration of surviving winter and the start of another season in the garden, a taste soon to be displaced by so many others.
Growing asparagus requires patience. The asparagus crowns that I plant this spring will have to grow for a year before any spears can be cut. All the more reason to start now.
If you want to avoid the major fungal diseases of asparagus, rust and fusarium, your best variety choices are ‘Jersey Knight’ and ‘Jersey Supreme,’ both fruits of research conducted at Rutgers University. They yield almost twice as many spears as the old heirloom variety ‘Mary Washington’ and both are male strains (asparagus plants are either male or female), making them more productive. I am leaning toward growing ‘Jersey Supreme’ because of its greater tolerance of cold springs.
Yes, for once I am straying from my passion for heirloom varieties, largely because asparagus is a perennial crop. Once planted, the same plants may remain productive for 30 or more years, a longevity that depends on disease resistance. Now is the time to order 1-year-old asparagus crowns (plants) for planting in late March. You can purchase them from most vegetable seed companies and possibly from a local garden center. Twenty-five crowns will plant about 40 linear feet of bed.
Hopefully you have had the soil tested for pH. Asparagus does not grow well in acid soils, so you may need to add limestone to bring the pH to 7.
Begin by digging one or more trenches, each about 12 inches wide and 8 inches deep (a little deeper if your soil is sandy, a little shallower if the soil is heavy). Crowns should be spaced 18 inches apart in each trench with 5 feet between trenches, center to center.
Before planting the crowns, add a 2-inch layer of compost or aged manure to the bottom of each trench, along with a dusting of rock phosphate and wood ash. Then place the crowns in the bottom of the trench, spreading the roots out. Cover them with several inches of soil. As the plants grow, continue to add soil to cover the shoots until the trench is completely backfilled.
For the Ellsworth area, USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 5, planting should be done in the last week of March. Adjust this date about a week to 10 days later for each zone farther north, a week to 10 days earlier for each zone farther south.
During the first year, water the asparagus bed deeply once a week unless there has been a good rain. Once established, the plants are more drought-resistant and supplemental watering will be necessary only during extended dry periods.
One year after planting and every year thereafter you should fertilize the asparagus bed with an organic fertilizer such as fish meal, blood meal, cottonseed meal, soybean meal, fish emulsion, aged manure or compost. The manure or compost can be spread an inch deep over the ground. Follow label instructions for any of the others.
In the second year after planting, you will be able to harvest a few tender spears from your asparagus bed over two or three weeks. In following years the harvest can go into the third week of June before you stop cutting and allow the remaining spears to develop their fernlike shoots. Harvesting involves cutting or snapping off the spears at ground level, taking care not to leave above-ground stubs that can attract asparagus beetles.
(Many of these tips for growing asparagus were gleaned from the “Week-by-Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook” by Ron and Jennifer Kujawski, published in 2010 by Storey Publishing.)
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