Asparagus, the Garden Wonder

on May 11, 2014
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Asparagus, the Garden Wonder

Asparagus is the most worry free perennial plant there is for the home gardener.  If you have bought some lately, then you know how expensive it is. We will be talking about bed preparation/selection, transplanting, harvesting, mulching, and propagating of the asparagus.  After the initial investment, you can propagate your own seed and increase your crop very easily.  Be sure you order your plants from a gardening supplier you trust.  You can order seeds (http://www.rareseeds.com/precoce-dargenteuil-asparagus) or crowns (plant roots ready to go in the ground), it just depends on how you want to get your bed started.  Be sure to plant them in the place you want them to be because once planted, they will produce for 20-30 years and repeat transplanting is not good for any plant.  

About Asparagus:
Asparagus is a perennial vegetable grown for its delicious young shoots. It is rich in B vitamins, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. Asparagus is one of the first crops ready for spring harvest.  We started cutting ours in early March.  It had produced quite a few before I realized it was even up.  I actually found it by accident when I was checking the mulch level of the garden in preparation for spring planting.  It was a welcome, delicious surprise! 

Asparagus plants are monoecious (I had to look it up) meaning each individual plant is either male or female. Some varieties of asparagus, such as ‘Jersey Knight’ and ‘Jersey Giant’ produce all male or primarily male plants, so they’re more productive. Male plants yield more harvestable shoots because they don’t have to invest energy in producing seeds. If a higher yield is your goal, then you should choose an all-male variety, but even then you may get a female or two.  We planted Jersey Knight and of the 15 I planted, 3 were female. This is fine with me since I have learned to propagate the seeds to increase my plot.  We still have a high enough yield for us. 

If you prefer an heirloom or purple-stalked variety, you may like ‘Purple Passion’. With an all-male variety, twenty-five plants are usually adequate for a household of four; double the amount of plants for standard varieties and if you are an asparagus lover, you may want to triple that. We started out with fifteen for the two of us about 4 years ago and this year I am transplanting about 30 more that I started from seed.  Since I started them from seed, it will be 2-3 years before I can harvest from them. 

You will find that fresh-picked spears are far more tender and tasty than store-bought ones.The flavor doesn’t even compare. Asparagus thrives in just about any area where you have freezing in the winter and dry season in the summer. The mild, wet regions of Florida and the Gulf Coast are about the only places where it’s difficult to grow and even there it is doable with a little work and ingenuity.

asparagus from seed with fronds

Bedding:
Asparagus needs loose, compost–rich soil. It does best in lighter soils that warm up quickly in spring and drain well; standing water will quickly rot the roots. It can withstand some shade, but it really prefers full sun. You want to be sure your site is in an area where it will not be endangered when you cultivate your garden. We planted ours directly in our garden at the far end, so as not to interfere with other gardening tasks. It is always in the direct sun and produces abundantly from March til around the end of September. It slows down around that time and I usually let it rest a while without harvesting it; then I cut it off at the ground in late October, early November depending on temperature and its health.

In hindsight, I wish I had put them in a raised bed.  When I next increase our plantings (by propagating my own seeds), I will put the new ones in a raised bed next to the garden. Some people do soil tests and amendments based on the recommendations of university and government studies. I do not do that and in all my years of gardening, I have never had an issue.  We mulch and add compost and organic fertilizer from our farm.

You want your planting bed about 4 feet wide and to remove all weeds and roots. You will plant your crowns in the middle of your bed. You want to add plenty of aged manure or compost as well. Pretty much like you would any bed preparation. Asparagus has a strong root system that spreads as much as 6 feet horizontally and can go 6 to 8 feet down. 

Transplanting:
I am sure you have noticed I don’t say “planting” asparagus, I say “transplanting.”  Asparagus seeds have to be planted so deep that it impedes their development, so seeds are started (just like any other seed) in cups and then transplanted to the garden.  Remember, while you can order seeds or crowns, the bed preparation is the same.

For crowns, dig a trench 12″ deep down the middle of your 4 foot row. Plant crowns 1’ – 2′ apart in it. Cover the crown with about two inches of soil. As shoots emerge, cover them with another 2″ of soil, continuing this pattern as the plants grow, until the soil level reaches the top of the trench. In very sandy soils, you will probably be okay filling in the trench when you plant the crowns, but you must be sure your soil is “very sandy.” Trenches should be 4’ apart. Plant in spring or, in milder climates, late fall/early winter.

Starting asparagus from 1-year-old crowns gives you a year’s head start over seed-grown plants. Two-year-old crowns may seem enticing, but they tend to suffer more from transplant shock and by the time they recover, they won’t have produced any faster than 1-year-old crowns.  

I have been asked about transplanting or moving mature crowns to a different location. While technically this is possible, my advice on that idea is forget it! Crowns more than two years old are generally huge and it is very difficult to get them out of the ground in one piece. The transplant shock is very great for these more mature crowns and the end result is that the moved crowns usually die. Even if they don’t die immediately, you are probably moving, along with the crown, the root rot organisms that almost always infect them. In their weakened condition, the crowns will fall victim to the disease more quickly. 

General Care: 

Asparagus is a heavy feeder so, while you will harvest some without it, your yield will be greater if you spend a little time and effort fertilizing your bed.  In Carla Emery’s Encyclopedia of Country Living, she says manure is best and compost second best. I have my bed mulched 4-6 inches so I really don’t spread either in there. Instead, I use compost tea and add water to wood ashes and pour these over the bed. It produces well for us. 

Harvesting:
Do not harvest your asparagus the year you plant it and, preferably, the year following planting. The asparagus plant needs to grow and establish a healthy crown and it will need all of its energy to do that.You can harvest lightly the 2nd year, but it is best to allow most spears to set ferns (the spears will become ferns as they develop) so that energy is put into developing stronger plants. They need to put all their energy into establishing deep roots. During the third season, harvest lightly leaving some to set ferns. By the fourth year, you can extend your harvest to the full season. “Lightly harvest” means you take only the shoots that are 1/2″ or greater in diameter. SpearReady

Harvest spears when they are 4 to 6 inches high and just before the scaly section at the tip begins to open (see the first picture above). As the weather warms, you might have to pick twice a day to keep up with production. Cut asparagus spears with a sharp knife or snap off the spears at, or right below ground level with your fingers. They will snap off at the woody portion.  I prefer to cut mine at ground level.

It is best to harvest in the early morning since hot sun makes them tough. You should check your bed at least every two days. I go to mine every day and almost always get some. You must harvest every spear of appropriate size or your plants will produce flowers and this will stop further shoot production from that crown (root). An established bed can be harvested until late fall (like mine), but the first few years of harvesting, say years 4-6, you should let the spears set ferns after about 12 weeks of harvest. I know this sounds like you will be missing out on some good eating, and like most gardeners, I hate to let fruit sit in the garden unharvested, but it will benefit you in the years to come.  Remember, you will be harvesting from your bed for at least 20 years!
 
Whips are the tall slender spears and are generally higher in fiber and so tougher to eat than thicker spears because most of the fiber in asparagus is in the skin. You can harvest these also. The larger spear more tender than the slender whips. If you notice the number of spears in a harvest drops off dramatically, or if the spear diameter drops, you may want to consider ending harvest early. These are good indications that the crown in experiencing some stress.

Asparagus Fronds

Asparagus Ferns

Remember, the fern is the “factory” that supplies energy to the crown and storage roots for the next year’s crop and it takes a great deal of energy to perform this task. Throughout the post-harvest growing season, keep your ferns healthy by never pruning or cutting them back. You don’t want alot of new fern growth towards the end of the season so you need to stop any fertilizing and watering early to late fall depending on your area. Later in the south (as I am). I usually let them rest after September. 

Just a side note: I used to think white asparagus was a variety, but it is really just the very young spears before they green up in the sun.  Some people like them because the flavor is milder.  We really don’t care for it since we prefer the flavor of the mature spears.

Mulched Asparagus Bed
Mulching:
Weed control is very important in successfully growing asparagus. This is especially so in the first couple of years after transplanting, when the young crowns are at their most vulnerable. It should be 4-6″ deep. Don’t mulch your very young plants. They may have trouble growing through it. I spread just enough leaves around my young ones to keep them from over exposure to heat and keep some moisture in.

Starting Asparagus from Seed:

Starting or increasing your asparagus patch from seed takes a little patience, but there are advantages. Seed-grown plants don’t suffer from transplant shock like the roots (crowns) grown at the nursery. Seeds are considerably more cost efficient.  You can buy a whole pack of seeds for the cost of one crown and if you save your seed from your existing bed, they are free.  As I have already said, I am experimenting this year with this process.  So far it has been easy and productive. We will see what happens next year when/if they produce shoots. I will update you on that event! (April 2015 Update: We have success. The seedlings we transplanted made it through the winter. They are up and producing asparagus and ferns. We will not harvest them at all this year and only lightly next year.)

Young Asparagus

Also, most seed-grown asparagus plants will out-produce root grown ones in the long run. I am told you can discard the females and keep the males when growing from seed, however, I am still learning and not sure how to tell them apart when they are seedlings. I am studying it on the internet, so for now, I am planting whatever sprouts and hoping for the best. I can always remove them from the bed, if I get too many females. This is the best information I have found on telling them apart, but mine haven’t “flowered”: “When tiny flowers appear, observe them with a magnifying glass. Female flowers have well-developed, three-lobed pistils; male blossoms are larger and longer than female flowers.” Still looking for a better way to tell. 

I followed Carla Emery’s advice to save my own seeds and it worked well. In the late summer or early fall, when the female berries have turned red, cut the fern, leaving the berries intact on the stem, and hang it upside down in a cool, dry place. I hung mine in a room in our house where I store “things” like jars, preserved foods, and such; you know you have a place like that too.

In late February, I soaked them in room temp water for a couple of days then planted them in seed starter cups of organic soil. Once they had a strong root system, I planted them in the asparagus bed in the garden. I have read that you should put them in a seedbed and transplant the following spring, but I wanted to avoid any root shock.  Carla says that you can plant them directly to your permanent site from a seed flat when the plants are well rooted so I tried it.  We will see how it turns out. (See Update Above: It worked!)

Preserving/preparing:

Once you cut the spears, wash them and pat them dry. Place them in an air tight container (I use a baggie or veggie bag) in the refrigerator.  They will keep fresh for about a week, so you can add to it after each cutting until you get enough to cook. Of course, this depends on the size of your family and number of plants you are harvesting from.

We like to eat it raw on our salads,or just as a veggie with our meal.  We like to steam it, this takes 15-20 minutes depending on how tender you want it. Our favorite way is to put some butter on our cast iron griddle, put the asparagus on, sprinkle a little sea salt and garlic powder and saute them until they are lightly grilled.  Yummmmm….

Safe and Happy Journey,

Rhonda and The Pack

 

New Pack Photo

This article is seen in Countryside and Small Stock Journal magazine’s September/October issue.

  Recent transplant lightly mulched

23 Comments

  • sharon

    By far, the best asparagus article I have read.

    May 16, 2015 at 11:20 pm Reply
    • Rhonda

      Thank you, Sharon, for the kind words. I just gave a talk yesterday for first time asparagus growers. I’m so glad you liked it. Feel free to share the link 😉

      May 17, 2015 at 7:16 am Reply
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  • Ashley

    I bought an asparagus plant from a local store that was already in a fern stage. It is doing great but I’m not sure how it will do come winter…..it is in a raised bed…..is there anything I need to do to it for winter so that it doesn’t die?

    July 26, 2015 at 9:13 am Reply
    • Rhonda

      Ashley, when the fern lays over and starts to turn yellow, cut it off even with ground and mulch it. If you are in a zone where it freezes deeply or for extended periods, put at least 6″ of mulch on it. If you’re like me and it just gets cold with some freezing (never soil freezing) you could get by with just 3″ of mulch. 🙂 Hope this helps. If you run into anything else you need me for, don’t hesitate to let me know. You can comment here again or you can use the Contact Me page on the site 🙂

      July 27, 2015 at 9:00 am Reply
  • Kat Starnes

    What a useful post! My asparagus bed is in its second year, and I have been planning an expansion. I put in Jersey Knight, and have just a couple female plants going to seed. I think I’ll try harvesting the seed from some of those red berries I see forming, following your instructions, and see if I can’t start my next round that way. Thanks for the wonderful information!

    July 26, 2015 at 11:15 am Reply
    • Rhonda

      Kat, Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I really appreciate your taking your time to comment. The seedlings I planted last year actually produced spears this year. Of course I didn’t cut them, but I was excited to see them thriving! Let me know how it goes! If you need me for anything you can always reach me by using the Contact Me page or commenting here again. 🙂

      July 27, 2015 at 9:02 am Reply
  • Beth C.

    I agree, you created a wonderful article. It was very helpful and addressed issues I hadn’t thought of yet since I just started growing asparagus. Thanks for this wealth of information!

    July 26, 2015 at 11:57 am Reply
    • Rhonda

      Beth, Your kind words mean so much to me. Thank you. I’m so glad you liked the article. I hope you found all you needed in it. If you think of something I can help you with, please let me know. You can comment here again or use the Contact Me page on the site. 🙂

      July 27, 2015 at 9:04 am Reply
  • Martha

    Rhonda, I just found your site and I am finding it to be fun and educational. We do love asparagus and have been expanding our area of it. So, this article was very helpful to me. I will be reading lots more of your articles and have passed on your site to others who are also interested in your life-style. And I have to mention “the Pack”; as we also have pets. They all look so happy and I can tell they are well loved and cared for.
    Thanks again for all the info and insights.

    December 6, 2015 at 8:58 am Reply
    • Rhonda Crank

      Martha, I’m so excited you are a part of The Farmer’s Lamp community. Thank you for taking the time to let me hear from you. I’m glad you enjoy the site and The Pack! Please feel free to contact me with anything you might need help with. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll help you get yo a reliable source.

      December 6, 2015 at 2:37 pm Reply
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  • Sandman

    TRY COATING THEM WITH OLIVE OIL THEN SPRINKLE WITH EQUAL PARTS ONION POWDER,GARLIC POWDER,SEA SALT AND BLACK PEPPER
    DONT SUBSTITUTE ONION OR GARLIC SALT—BAAAAAAAD
    THEN COOK THEM ON THE GRILL FOR A REAL TREAT SPRINKLE THEM WITH PARASOM CHEESE BEFORE SERVING.
    THIS IS ALSO A GREAT SEASONING FOR ANYTHING ELSE–WE MAKE IT BY THE QUART

    December 1, 2016 at 7:22 am Reply
    • Rhonda Crank

      Sounds fantastic! Thanks so much for stopping in and sharing your recipe!

      December 1, 2016 at 9:04 am Reply

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