I’m far from being an expert on asparagus. In fact, I’ve been a little disappointed in my asparagus harvest, so I decided to do some research to see if there’s something I can do to improve it for next year. I thought I’d share what I’ve learned, along with my experience – the ups and downs of asparagus.
A Favorite Veggie
We love asparagus! It’s so easy to prepare, and even tasty right there in the garden. It’s amazingly sweet and delicious. It’s also a perennial, which means it comes back year after year. It can grow in part-shade which is a bonus to gardeners that don’t have enough full-sun areas, but it’s more productive in full sun.
It’s also one of the first harvestable vegetables, coming up in early spring. When you’ve gone through the winter without harvesting anything from the garden, it’s a sight for sore eyes!
I don’t remember when I planted my first crowns, I’d guess about five or six years ago. That first batch I planted in one of the raised beds in my veggie garden, along with strawberries. They actually grow very well together, but I found that when it came time to harvest strawberries that it was annoying trying to find and pick them while asparagus ferns were poking me in the eye or getting caught in my hair. Also, when I planted them I really didn’t know how large they would get.
With that first bit of experience I decided I wanted to move them out of the raised bed and to somewhere in the ground where they wouldn’t take up that valuable real estate and would have more room to grow. I tried to dig up those crowns to relocate them. A few I wasn’t able to dig up at all, and the ones that I did get out and tried to transplant didn’t make it. Another lesson learned: plan carefully where you want to put your asparagus, it can live twenty years or more and does not like to be moved.
The above picture shows a few of the original crowns sending up some spears earlier this season. You can see the various stages of growth. The very tallest one is starting to make a fern. The next tallest ones are beginning to separate the tips. Then there are a few visible ones that are at the perfect stage for harvest, about 8-12″ with tightly closed tips. (The strawberries relocated themselves to another bed, so those are some older plants, too, but that’s a different story. In the back right corner is some cilantro, and in the background you can see some guineas at work in the yard. In the foreground is a “walking onion.”)
Just about a year ago I decided to plant some new young crowns in my front yard flower garden. I may live to regret it, but I thought I’d try planting some among my flowers.
The ferns are actually kind of attractive in bouquets, and as a backdrop to the other plants. Some of the crowns have taken off and are doing very well. I think they’re the ones near other plants that draw my attention when watering. Others, in more remote areas of the garden are slower to get going. At the moment, I’m glad I did, because the roses make a pretty backdrop to the asparagus, and the contrast makes it easier to see the fine foliage. The ferns get quite tall, about four feet, and quite often flop over.
Did you know that asparagus has male and female? They’re quite easy to tell apart. In fact, if you tried, you might be able to guess what their differences are.
Female plants send up shoots that are thinner and shorter than males, and they also produce seeds. I didn’t have a photo of the seeds, but they’re just little red balls.
I was showing my son the asparagus and telling him about them. I found a few seeds so I gave them to him and he started them, along with his other seeds. Here’s a picture of his seedlings to help you with identification.
The male spears are thicker (stronger) and taller. Their spears are often as thick as my thumb. If you look back up at the photo from the raised bed, you can see that some of the spears are noticeably thicker and taller than the others.
I’ve found asparagus to be pretty easy and low-maintenance. They can get pests and diseases, but I really haven’t had a problem with either. They perform best in enriched, well-draining soil, which explains why they liked my raised bed so much.
I’ve been amazed at how easily asparagus self-sows. I find little seedlings quite often in my gardens. If you don’t want that, then you’ll want to collect the seeds. Also, it’s possible to buy only male crowns. Occasionally, I’ll gather seeds and go toss them at the edge of the woods. I don’t know if they’ll grow there, but I thought that would be a fun surprise someday if they did. Can you ever have too much asparagus? I didn’t think so, either. Have you priced it in the stores lately?!
Okay, now to do a little reading to see what I might be able to improve upon. Here are a few mental notes I made:
- I read someone suggesting to cover asparagus crowns with leaves for the winter. With my gardening practices that happens on its own. I usually leave some of the dead stems, simply to mark where the growing crowns are so I don’t accidentally damage them before the new spears start to appear again. Asparagus also likes organic material, so that seems to be a good practice.
- There are some references that describe how to prepare an ideal bed for asparagus. I felt like that was done in the original raised bed, but not so much in the front yard. If you’re getting ready to plant yours, you might want to follow Rodale’s advice.
- Asparagus, especially young crowns, doesn’t like to compete with other plants. I’ve read to weed around them and heavily mulch them.
I’m thinking that I may just need to keep up what I’ve been doing and be patient. The crowns in the front yard are still very young, and there aren’t very many of the older ones in the garden. I didn’t find anything that I’ve done terribly wrong. Patience may be the key word with asparagus.
When – You want to harvest asparagus when it’s about a foot tall, or so. You want the tip to still be tightly closed. Asparagus grow amazingly fast, so you’ll want to check it often during its growing season. Once it begins to make a fern, it’s too late. You don’t want to harvest all of the spears because the plant needs to store energy through the ferns for the next year, so leave some spears to mature. Later in the season when they’ve yellowed, you can cut them back, or remove them altogether. I like to leave a few “stumps” just to mark where the plants are, for their protection and also so I’ll know where to start watching for spears the next spring. The harvest season varies with the age of the crowns. You don’t want to harvest any for the first two years. The third year you can harvest for about four weeks. When they’re four years or older, it’s about 8-12 weeks long.
How – I think the easiest way is just to grasp the spear and snap it off. You can use a knife to cut them off, but you might not get all of the woody part off, or conversely you might cut off some of the tender part. If you’ve already cut them, or bought some from the store, hold the spear with both hands and bend it until it snaps. It will snap in the perfect place! Easy! Fun, even. Show young ‘uns how to do it and let them help. Harvested spears will keep pretty well in the refrigerator for several days. I put a little water in the bottom of a glass, stand the spears upright in it, and put it in the fridge.
One of my favorite ways of cooking asparagus is amazingly easy. I place the rinsed asparagus in a single layer on a baking sheet. Drizzle a little olive oil over it. Roll the asparagus around a little, then sprinkle garlic salt over it. I roast it at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes, taking it out halfway to roll them around a little more. If I’m baking fish I’ll sometimes add the asparagus around it.
I also like to chop up fresh asparagus to add to salads, and it’s awesome to add to creamy pasta dishes!
I haven’t had enough asparagus to worry about preserving it. I really don’t like it canned because it’s too mushy. I might try freezing it if it gets to where I have more than we can eat. I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful with that.
I have an early childhood memory of finding some asparagus growing beneath a bush. Even at a young age, that was an exciting find! I would encourage you to give asparagus a try. It really is a fun crop to grow.
If you have tips on growing and preserving, please share them. I would love to learn more about one of my favorite vegetables!
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