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August 20, 2014
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The green, green grass of home; Sowing, growing & eating asparagus

Cooked asparagus with ramp relish
Photos by Laura Silverman

By Laura Silverman

After enduring a punishing winter, there is nothing more welcome than the first signs of spring poking up from the impossibly barren earth. Out in nature, knotweed, ferns and nettles are among the first things to appear. In my garden, it is the incipient tender green of sorrel, rhubarb and angelica. This year, I hope to be adding asparagus to that list, because we planted a patch last spring. Although you can forage for asparagus in the wild—the trick is to recognize the spent fronds from the year before—there is something special about being able to harvest them right outside your own back door.

Asparagus officinalis is an herbaceous flowering perennial, so once it’s in, its long green fingers come up every year. Native to most of Europe, northern Africa and western Asia, it is widely cultivated and quite an easy crop for the home gardener, often staying hardy for more than 20 years. The key is to set your patch up properly. A sunny, well-drained part of the garden is best, and raised beds work well. Plant asparagus in soil with a pH of 6.5 to 7.5. From seed, it takes six weeks to germinate and adds an additional year of growing time before the first harvest, so consider starting from the root masses, known as “crowns.” Select those that are fresh and firm; prune any dry sections before planting.

Crowns should be planted while they are dormant, as early as late winter, though the ground has to be workable. As long as they are covered with about two inches of soil, they won’t suffer in hard freezes. They can be planted as late as mid-spring, if plump, healthy roots are still available. If you want to plant more than a few crowns, you’ll need to dig a trench, ideally deep enough to accommodate a layer of compost or other organic material beneath the crowns. Plantings shallower than 8 inches will yield lots of spindly spears, while those planted deeper produce fewer but fatter spears.

Space the crowns so you get as many plants as possible in a small area, while still allowing for good air circulation to protect against disease, about 14 inches apart in rows that are at least 3 feet apart. Allot about 10 plants for each person in the family who loves asparagus, so you can harvest enough at one time for a meal. With the increased vigor of the newly available hybrid varieties, gardeners can harvest for about two weeks during the first season, one year after planting. A light harvest seems to stimulate the plant to produce more spears. The second year, you may get a full 6-week harvest, provided the average size of the spears is larger than a pencil.