Let the Asparagus Story be Told
Asparagus shoots were the spears of the ancients…widely desired by them as a tasty delicacy and a one-stop vegetable for nutrition and medical applications (curing everything from a toothache to heart disease), as well as an aphrodisiac.
This 5,000+ year old veggie is discussed as far back as 3,000 B.C. where it was depicted on an Egyptian wall mural as an offering to the gods.
It Grows Wild
In ancient days, wild asparagus was foraged mostly in the high grasses along coastlines, marshes, streams, and swamp areas.
It loved alkaline soil and thrived with a steady source of moisture.
Today, wild asparagus can also be found in areas including roadsides, ditches, pastures, and along fence lines.
Festivals across the U.S.A. and Europe are held in its honor. There are asparagus parades, asparagus queens, asparagus auctions, and, of course, asparagus contests; asparagus peeling, asparagus eating, etc.
Only the very young asparagus shoots are desired. If the buds (also called, “love tips”) start to open, they will very rapidly grow to be woody and, I, for one, do not like eating tree branches, do you?
It Doesn’t Get Much Healthier!
High in vitamins B6, C, E, and K, as well as fiber, calcium, magnesium, zinc, protein, potassium, copper, manganese, selenium, phosphorus, beta-carotene, and on…and on…and on… It is a proven agent for; lowering risks of cancer, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes; reducing aging effects, stimulating sex hormone production, and anti inflammatory applications.
- There are both male and female asparagus plants. Although the soft, young spears are edible, the female plants produce red berries which are toxic and can cause diarrhea and vomiting. The male plants are mostly what you find in the grocery store.
- Commenting on how fast he wanted a task completed, Augustus Caesar would say, “…faster than cooking asparagus!” (Asparagus – Wikipedia) So, even the Romans knew to only boil it for a few minutes at the most! Augustus Caesar commanded special military fleets to gather and return with all the asparagus they could find. Augustus would also send runners to nearby mountains to store asparagus on the freezing mountain summits.
- Within hours of eating asparagus, this little veggie will affect the color and smell of urine. Urine gets a greenish tinge and an odor somewhat resembling rotted cabbage. Not everyone can smell “asparagus urine.” Only a small number of people (about ¼ of the human population) have a special gene that allows them to detect the odor of asparagus in their own urine and anyone else’s. Thankfully, I do not have that “special gene.”
Eating This Delicious “Spear of Influence”
My favorite way to eat asparagus is lightly boiled or steamed (three to five minutes)…accompanied by one of my favorite veggie dipping sauces…the same sauces I use with my broccoli munching.
Stews and soups, stir fried, sautéed, pickled, marinated, and grilled, are other ways of preparing asparagus that are especially mouth-watering.
Europeans enjoy mostly white asparagus…with ham, potatoes, and melted butter…or Hollandaise sauce.
White asparagus is created by covering the tips up with dirt to prevent the sunlight from turning the stalks green…keeping them from engaging in photosynthesis.
Hollandaise sauce is made from egg yolk, butter, water, and lemon juice, with a touch of cayenne pepper.
Time to Patiently Grow This Delicious Veggie!
Now, it is time to learn how to grow asparagus at home in your backyard garden.
You will notice that I said “patiently” because, patience is the number one requirement for growing asparagus.
As a perennial, asparagus will come back year after year…but, it takes a couple of years for the veggie to be cultivated into the familiar spears we are used to seeing at the grocery store. The first few years will only produce thin, pencil-like shoots. But, if cared for properly, they will blossom into a full blown “spear heaven” in the long run.
Dedicate a space in your backyard that has never been used as a garden. Thus minimizing attacks by soil-borne diseases that might be harmful. Remember…since asparagus is a perennial that comes back year after year…you won’t be tilling the area…except, maybe, lightly around the plants to control weeds. An area with full sun and good drainage is essential.
The broad range asparagus pH level is estimated to be between 6.0 and 8.0 but, the optimum range is 6.5 to 7.0 for best results. They like a soil that leans towards neutral or alkaline. Soil testing the planting area is definitely recommended!
The Best Varieties
My chosen varieties of asparagus include:
- Jersey Knight – Disease resistant and capable of growing in most any type of soil, including clay soil.
- Jersey Giant – Disease resistant for fusarium wilt, crown rot and rust. Produces high yields with extra-large spears.
- Jersey Supreme – Large, thick, tasty spears preferred by many avid asparagus growers.
- Mary Washington – Juicy spears and the plants remain attractive even after harvesting.
These asparagus varieties mature in 730 days! That is two years, folks! And, the first crop…after two years of patient, loving care, will be very light. However, subsequent crops, starting with the third year, will be fairly normal from then on…and you will be applauding your patience and the ability to enjoy your home-grown delectable spears!
Growing From Seed
Be patient through the germination process. Asparagus seeds can take about 4 times as long as other veggie seeds to germinate…up to 4 weeks!
The seedlings are ready to plant outdoors once they are 6 to 10 inches tall with 4 to 6 stems and several buds on the crown…after the last frost in the spring when soil temperature is at least 60 °F (15 °C).
NOTE 1: Ensure that the seedlings are planted well before the air temperature approaches 90 °F (32 °C). Otherwise, you may be wasting your time watching all your little plants die…one by one.
NOTE 2: I use a 5-gallon bucket with a 50/50 mixture of dirt and potting soil and a couple of tablespoons of 10-10-10 fertilizer when putting seedling plants or bare roots (crowns) in the garden.
- Dig a hole larger than the seedling’s root ball. Then pack and cover with the 50/50 soil mixture explained in NOTE 2. Keep the root ball at least ½ inch below the overall garden dirt level. Firmly press into place and add the soil mixture to the top, making it even with the dirt level.
- Space the plants 18 inches apart in each row and space the rows at least two to three feet apart.
- Water well and keep the soil moist but not soggy until those seedlings become acclimated and then give them at least an inch of water a week.
- Now, it’s time to start the 730-day clock!
Growing From Bare Roots (Crowns)
So…now…you decided to pass on the seeds and order the bare roots. Time to get out your backhoe!
Plant the crowns after the last frost in the spring when soil temperatures are at least 60 °F (15 °C) or, in the fall, when soil temperatures drop back down…usually in mid to late September.
- Dig a trench six to eight inches deep and at least a foot wide. Space the trenches at least two to three feet apart.
- Spread the roots out as much as possible on the bottom of the trench and keep the crowns 18 inches apart.
- Cover the roots with several inches of the 50/50 soil mixture explained in NOTE 2 above.
- Water well. Keep the plants moist but not soggy. Too much water can cause plant diseases.
- As the plants emerge, add more soil every few weeks until the trench is full.
- Then, ensure they get at least an inch of water a week.
- Come back in two years!
NOTE 3: Watering with sprinklers or a garden hose is best done in the morning to give the plant leaves a chance to dry out before evening approaches…discouraging disease. Employing soaker hoses will allow you to water anytime.
Mulching is Very Important
Since weeds compete with all my vegetable plants for water, space, and nutrients, it is important to keep them out of any garden you have. Mulching is the best approach.
Not only will mulching control the weeds, but, it helps retain the soil’s moisture and keep the soil cooler. Hence, the plants are much happier.
The 730-Day Clock is Ticking Down – Time to Harvest
Be patient. Do not harvest ANY asparagus the 1st year. Let the plants grow and store food in their roots to create stronger plants next year. Too much work and sweat have been invested so, protect these delicacies…care for them as carefully as you would your favorite electric tiller.
NOTE 4: When harvesting, cut spears with a sharp knife, scissors, or garden shears, like my Gonicc 8″ Pruning Shears, at ground level. Snapping them off by hand will damage the plants’ tissues and may cause diseases. Gather spears before the buds start to open up…that’s when they start turning into tree branches.
In the 2nd year, take a few spears here and there over a couple of weeks, but, after that, leave them alone until the 3rd year.
In year three, pick the spears that are 6 to 8 inches long and ½ inch thick over about a month’s period. Don’t pick any that are only ¼ inch thick…let them grow up.
NOTE 5: To experience the European favorite, white asparagus, just keep piling dirt up around the crown to keep the sunlight off the stalk until ready to harvest. Then, when they are about ½ inch thick, dig out the extra dirt around them and cut them off 6 to 8 inches below their crowns. Put the spears into a dark box immediately until you are ready to wash and cook them…sunlight may not turn them green but, they have been known to turn pink. And, personally, I just don’t see myself eating pink asparagus for some reason…
NOTE 6: Before the first frost in the fall, cut all tops down to ground level and ensure that mulch covers everything to give the asparagus some protection over the winter months. In the spring, they will start popping up to greet your eager harvesting smile.
If you take care of them properly, asparagus plants will reward you with first-class spears for 15 to 20 years…or more!
Pests and Diseases
The most common enemy of asparagus is the feared asparagus beetle…both the adults and the larvae.
Some ways to combat these evil critters:
- The beautiful little lady bug will eat the asparagus beetle larvae.
- Handpick these scalawags off the plant. Have a bucket of water handy and most of the beetles may fall in and drown as the plant is disturbed. They hate vibration and movement around them.
- Keep plant debris out of the area. And, don’t put it into your compost pile unless you want the bugs back on your plants the next time you apply compost to your garden.
- Companion plant asparagus with tomatoes to repel this asparagus nemesis.
- Apply neem oil (preferred) upon first noticing these beetles…or, at least lay some pine tree branches around the asparagus to discourage these predators.
The main diseases are asparagus rust, crown rot, and fusarium wilt. The onset of these diseases normally occurs when the plant is stressed…either through prolonged drought (too dry)…or, long periods of rain (too wet). A good fungicide is the best solution in these cases.
Definition of Patience
Patience is the quality I admire in the driver of the car behind me…but, it is the trait I despise in the driver of the car in front of me.
Does anyone else identify with this?
Patiently awaiting my asparagus spears…730 days and counting!
Are you a steadfast asparagus gardener? Any tips or tales to impart? Share them in the comments below or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.