If you do not like asparagus (a position I don’t understand), this column is not for you. In my opinion, asparagus is one of the best spring vegetables and must be consumed often while it is producing. It should be planted as soon as the soil can be worked, so get going.
When I plant asparagus, I order the plants from a reputable catalogue like Johnny’s Seeds. You will find a lot of information there and the plants will arrive in good condition. Twenty plants are good for a family of four. Buy one-year-old plants and, if you cannot plant them immediately, keep the roots moist by wrapping them in damp sphagnum moss.
Asparagus grows as male and female plants. Buy male plants. Females use part of their energy to make seeds and therefore produce fewer spears. When I planted asparagus at my house 15 years ago, I planted some females and let them stay. Even now new plants come up in different parts of the garden. These don’t grow spears, but I like the foliage. Jersey Knight and Jersey Giant are recommended varieties. There are also purple varieties.
Asparagus likes light soil that drains well, warms early in the spring, and that has a pH of 6.0 to 7.0, though it can tolerate slightly acidic soil. PH testers are available at garden centers and are easy to use. Raised beds are ideal—since asparagus will live 20 years or more if happy, choose the location carefully. When you have chosen the location, thoroughly remove all weeds.
The crowns should be planted 18 to 24 inches apart. Lay out your space accordingly. There are differing versions of planting from this point. I will give you my method, which is not the usual one:
Spacing of crowns and spreading of roots are the most important things. I dig a trench about 8 inches deep by 12 inches and add 2 inches of good compost (and some lime if I know the soil is acidic). Mix the compost and lime into the soil. Spread the roots very carefully so they don’t touch and then cover the trench. They will lay flat on the bottom of the trench.
Then I apply a 1- to 2-inch layer of good compost and then 4 inches of seed-free mulch. Asparagus does not like to compete with weeds. Weeds should be pulled, not removed with hoes, so the asparagus roots are not disturbed. Water the crowns in well at this point and regularly afterward. Asparagus does not like to sit in water or very wet soil. Use drip irrigation. Overhead watering from a can may cause the foliage to collapse onto itself.
Now comes the hard part. There will be spears the following year. Don’t eat them!
Leaving them will add energy to the roots. You may eat only a few the second year! Your reward begins the third year. Harvest the spears when they are 6 to 7 inches tall and about a half inch in diameter. They may be harvested until the spears become spindly and the foliage has begun to grow. In my own bed, I spare some of the good ones for the plant’s growth even during this third year. As the plants continue to mature, more spears will be available each year—so patience pays off.
Let the foliage grow through summer. It is very airy, beautiful and adds visual interest to the garden. Some gardeners cut the foliage in fall. I leave it until spring. Each year in spring, add well-rotted manure and/or good compost, and refresh the mulch.
Plant asparagus with care and you will be rewarded for many years.
Jeanelle Myers is a professional gardener, landscaper and consultant. For gardening discussion you can call her at 631-434-5067. jeanellemyersfinegardening.com