Native to Europe, asparagus has been a treasured seasonal delicacy since ancient times. Today in many parts of Europe, white asparagus is preferred to green or purple spears. It is said to be more tender and have a milder flavor. White asparagus is not permitted to see the light of day until after the harvest. Thus deprived, it cannot produce pigment through photosynthesis. Any gardener may keep the green or purple shoots covered with earth and have “white” asparagus.
Asparagus is unique among vegetables in that it is diocious, which means that male and female flowers are produced on separate plants. Because female plants expend a lot of energy flowering and going to seed, it is thought best to have primarily male plants which produce more shoots to harvest. University researchers in New Jersey have developed several cultivars dominated by male plants. They have names such as Jersey King, Jersey Giant and Jersey Knight.
Creating an asparagus bed is a terrific project for folks who enjoy gardening with perennials. Once established, it will remain productive for 20 years. In our area, a raised bed is best to ensure proper drainage. This will also make it easy to provide the rich soil this heavy feeder requires to flourish.
Although it is possible to grow asparagus from seed, most gardeners plant “crowns,” or dormant roots from plants at least a year old. Crowns are sold in lots of 25. To plant the crowns, dig a furrow one foot wide and six inches deep. Place the crowns about one foot apart and cover with two inches of soil. As the plants grow, continue to cover them until the furrow is filled. Mulch will help prevent weeds. Take care when weeding so that you do not damage the emerging spears.
If you plant two-year crowns, a week of harvest may be possible the following spring. With one-year crowns, one generally waits until the second year to begin harvesting for two weeks. The third year, one may harvest for four to six weeks. To harvest, break off the tender spears or carefully cut them with a knife just below the soil surface. After harvest, allow the asparagus to go to fern, that is, produce foliage.
Asparagus foliage is 40 to 60 inches tall and feathery. It is quite attractive. Female plants may produce red berries, which are poisonous. Cut back the foliage after it dies in the fall. This autumn cleanup helps reduce possible pest and disease problems. Apply manure or compost at the same time to provide needed nutrients for the emerging asparagus shoots.
Establishing an asparagus bed is a rewarding project for optimists. I love to grow edibles that are pricey to buy in the market or best fresh picked. This project promises fresher produce at an attractive price!
Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home.