You know a meal is special when asparagus is involved. It is a vegetable that refuses to conform with those other boring, mundane greens. With that sweet and crunchy satisfaction that goes just right with a little garlic, you can't go wrong with asparagus!
As good as asparagus tastes, it is equaled by the amount of effort you must put in to produce it yourself. The growing process of asparagus is not measured by weeks or months, but rather, years. If you enjoy asparagus, however, it may be worth the effort.
As it so happens, we are coming upon asparagus season in many parts of the United States. The southern region is ripe for growing. So if you live in one of those farm states, lucky you.
There are several factors to take into account when planting your asparagus: Where should you plant them? Should you plant seeds, or roots? How long do asparagus take to grow? Carla Emery answers all these questions in this week's passage from her book.
Choosing Seed or Roots
NOTE: Asparagus seeds are poisonous.
Will you grow asparagus from seed? Or from roots? From 1-year-old roots? Or from 2-year-old or 3-year-old roots? The younger the roots (called "crowns") are, the cheaper they are but the longer it takes them to produce, a difference measured in years. You will harvest lightly from seeds in 3 years, normally after 4. You will begin getting a heavy harvest from 1-year-old crowns in 3 years, from 2-year-old crowns in 2 years, from 3-year-old crowns after 1 year. (You can get a light harvest earlier than that.) If you do buy roots, plant 15 for each family member. Most northern growers plant roots in the early spring. Southern growers tend to plant them in the fall.
Choosing the Site. You do this only once every 25 years, so it's worth investing some effort. Choose your site carefully, one where the asparagus plants will not be in danger of being plowed up. Putting them in a long row at one side of your garden works well. It should be sunny and well-drained - because asparagus dies in waterlogged ground! For either asparagus seed or roots, your seedbed soil should be light and rich. Cultivate deeply. If the soil is not loose and light - if it's heavy clay, for example - add a little sand and a lot of compost. Like artichokes, asparagus is a heavy feeder. Start it out with a compost- or manure-rich soil.
Planting Seed. Asparagus seed is usually planted in a special seedbed or in seed flats. You can also use seeds to occasionally replenish your permanent bed of asparagus plants. Or plant directly to your garden. Start by pouring lukewarm (not hot!) water over the seed, and let it soak until cool. Pour off that water and do the same thing 3 more times. Or else soak the seed 48 hours at 85 to 90˚F if you have a way to control the temperature. Plant the seeds 2 inches deep and about 1⁄2 inch apart, in rows 18 inches apart, as early in the spring as possible. Plant some radish seed together with the asparagus to mark row location for cultivation because asparagus takes 3 weeks to germinate. When the plants are 2 inches tall, thin to about 1 inch apart. Weed frequently enough to keep out weeds. Be careful not to cut or disturb the asparagus when cultivating. From a seedbed, transplant the following spring, using directions for asparagus roots. If you planted in seed flats, transplant to your permanent site when the plants are well rooted.
Planting Roots. Proceed with care. Dig trenches 18 inches deep in rows 4 feet apart. Why the deep trench? Because a thriving asparagus plant has a strong root system that spreads as much as 6 feet horizontally and goes 6 to 8 feet down. The deep digging of the soil before you plant helps with that spreading, and the deep trench ensures that you get the asparagus' root system established below cultivation level, so you can use a rototiller within much of that 6-foot horizontal root-spreading area. Cover the bottom of the trench with a 6-inch layer of well-rotted manure. Spread 6 inches of topsoil over that. Now set in the asparagus crowns, 12 to 18 inches apart. Cover them with 2 inches of soil. As they grow, gradually cover them with more soil. Keep them weedfree.