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.
Once you’ve established your asparagus bed, the hard part is done. During the year your plants are getting established, it’s important to maintain a good level of moisture in the soil. Hybrid varieties resist disease, so all that’s left are the usual chores—weed control and pest management. The asparagus beetle can nibble on spears and lay dark eggs along the surface. Scrape these off with your fingernail.
Asparagus will keep growing throughout the summer but at some point you need to allow some of the spears to mature into feathery ferns. These should not be removed from asparagus plants until after several killing freezes as they transfer carbohydrates and energy to the roots, a process essential to the development of spears for next year’s harvest.
There are few things that evoke spring more vividly than the fresh, grassy taste of just-picked asparagus. Once you’ve sated your appetite for them simply steamed and cloaked in butter, eat them raw, thinly sliced and dressed with a citrusy vinaigrette; or roasted, which brings out the sweetness and intensifies the flavor. Wrapping them in prosciutto first takes this to a whole new level. Asparagus pairs very well with other spring flavors, including new potatoes, morels, peas, ramps and green garlic, as well as tender herbs like tarragon, mint and chervil. It also has an affinity for all things dairy—an excellent reason to pile on the butter, cream, yogurt or cheese. A stack of asparagus sautéed in butter and topped with a quivering poached egg make a perfect breakfast, lunch or dinner. Cook a bunch and purée it with buttermilk for a smooth soup that’s wonderful hot or chilled. Serve a platter topped with a tart relish of chopped pickled ramps and parsley. Though it might seem implausible, try dipping blanched spears in an Asian-inflected sauce made with peanut butter, lime juice, soy sauce, chile flakes and a pinch of sugar. And, one day, when you find yourself with a great bounty of fresh asparagus, put up some pickles. They’re delicious just out of the fridge a few days after you’ve made them, but even better pulled from the pantry shelf in the middle of winter. There’s nothing that tastes more of spring.