Growing Asparagus

How to establish a new asparagus bed for decades of harvest. Tips on extending the harvest.

Asparagus is a popular vegetable that nearly all women and most men enjoy. It is fairly expensive to buy but can be grown at home easily. With just a little attention to preparing the planting beds and minor fall maintenance an abundant supply of tender spears can be harvested for many years.

SELECTING A VARIETY

Until fairly recently, there was only one good variety of asparagus available to the home gardener. Mary Washington was considered the finest type available. Now, however, thanks to a lot of work by plant breeders and hybridizers there are many types of asparagus, including all-male varieties, which do not waste precious resources producing seed each year.

Jersey Knight and Jersey Giant are two of the very best types for the home gardener. UC-157 is another new introduction that is especially suitable for gardens on the west coast of the United States as it was developed for milder climates.

Another new variety of asparagus is Purple Passion. The spears are purple and green. This type is quite a bit more expensive than any of the other three top-rated asparagus varieties. You will have to decide if the novelty of growing purple asparagus is worth the extra cost of the crowns, keeping in mind that your asparagus bed is capable of continuous production well into the second half of the 21st Century.

Avoid buying your asparagus crowns from the garden shops of mega-stores. These crowns will generally not be of top quality and will most likely be the Mary Washington variety. They will also be more expensive than top-quality 1-year-old field-grown crowns from a reputable grower. Expect to pay from $15 - 20.00 for bundles of 25 superior-quality asparagus crowns.

HOW MANY SHOULD YOU BUY?

For every family member who enjoys asparagus you should plan on 25 crowns. They will be planted a foot apart, so plan on 25 feet of row for everyone who eats asparagus in your family. Generally two rows fifty feet long will take care of a family of four with extra to share or preserve.

PREPARING THE BEDS

Select a part of the garden that receives full sun and has good drainage. If drainage is a problem, solve it by making raised beds. Lay out your rows, leaving three feet between rows. Cultivate down to about eighteen inches and dig in lots of well-composted manure. Be prepared to mulch the new asparagus bed after the crowns are planted to discourage weeds, maintain constant moisture, and keep the soil cool. Any weed-free organic mulch will do, or use black plastic mulch between the rows and grass clippings or composted leaves on the crowns.

PLANTING THE CROWNS

Your asparagus crowns should arrive from the grower at the proper time for planting in your area. They should be opened immediately and planted as soon as they arrive. If you have to hold them over, store in a cool dark spot and keep moist, not wet.

On planting day, cut the bundles open and trim off any broken or damaged roots. Place all the crowns in a bucket and fill with a very dilute solution of 20-20-20 liquid fertilizer or fish emulsion. This will help get the crowns off to a good start.

Dig a planting hole large enough to accommodate the spread out roots, do not fold them up in the bottom of a shallow hole. Firm the soil up to the growing tips of the crown. Do not bury the top of the crown but leave it at ground level.

Space your crowns one foot apart. When all the crowns are planted, water in lightly and cover with mulch, about one inch thick, over the crowns and thicker where you will be walking.

Within a week or so the first bright-green feathery asparagus fronds will be showing above the soil. Keep the bed weed-free so that the asparagus plants do not have to compete with weeds for water or nutrients. By summer's end, your new bed of asparagus should be growing well and sending energy down into the crowns.



FALL AND WINTER CARE

After the first hard frost, cut the dead fronds off at ground level and remove from the garden. These should be burned, not added to the compost pile. This destroys insects that might over-winter in the dried fronds.

After you have cut down the dead fronds, you can add a layer of well-composted manure to the beds. It is ok to put this right over the stubble left from cutting the dead fronds. In the spring the asparagus spears will push right up through this covering.

Removing and destroying dead fronds and renewing the layer of composted manure and mulch are the only chores your asparagus bed will need. Careful attention to these tasks, annually, will assure a long and productive life for your asparagus.

Do not allow water to puddle and freeze over the asparagus bed. This can cause rotting of the newly established crowns. If you notice this happening, correct the problem as soon as possible and direct the standing water away from the asparagus beds.

SPRING AND THE FIRST HARVEST

Once upon a time, no one dared to harvest a new asparagus planting until it had been growing for several years. Research has shown that light cutting of spears the first spring after planting is not only possible but actually improves the later performance of the bed. Light harvesting encourages the crowns to produce more roots and put on more frond growth resulting in more spears the following year and many years to come.

Harvesting lightly means that you should only take spears for about three weeks of the first full growing season. Allow all the other spears to mature into energy-producing fronds.

There are several ways to harvest asparagus. Snapping the spears off at ground level is safe and will not damage hidden spears. Some gardeners use a special hook-shaped knife to cut the spears. If you do this, be very careful not to dip below the soil as you might injure a buried growing spear. You can cut the spears close to ground level if you prefer not to break them off.

THE SECOND YEAR

After your bed has been established for two full winters, you can extend the harvest season by two weeks. Always be sure to leave ample spears to mature into fronds. Some crowns will produce more spears than others and these may be harvested more heavily. Never remove all the spears from a single crown.

THE THIRD YEAR AND THEREAFTER

Once your asparagus bed has been through three winters you can begin harvesting heavily. Cut only the fat spears, leaving the very slender ones to grow into fronds. Leave anything that is thinner than a pencil. Normally the harvest season will last about two months. Asparagus should be cut every other day as these shoots grow very quickly. Spears that look too short to cut one day will be starting to open into fronds within two more days and will be unsuitable to eat.

EXTENDING THE HARVEST

If you allow a few harvestable spears to mature on each crown, you will be able to extend the harvest into July. The reason for this is that those fat fronds will produce extra food at a time when the crowns really need it and will allow the formation of more spears.

CONCLUSION

Start with top-quality, field-grown asparagus crowns, plant in well-prepared beds, mulch regularly, destroy and eliminate the dead fronds every fall, harvest lightly the first year and prepare to enjoy a bountiful harvest for decades to come.

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