Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Garden Diary: Planting Asparagus

Last weekend I planted asparagus! I've been wanting to grow asparagus since I read Barbara Kingsolver's book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" which I read on my honeymoon cruise and took out of the ship's library. I highly recommend this book, it's a great true story about the author and her family living on food they had grown or could buy locally for a year, and there's lots of great information on growing things in there.  One of the things she talks about is asparagus, and since I'm in general a fan of asparagus, ever since reading that book I've been wanting to grow my own. 

Now, asparagus is a vegetable I do not recommend for someone who is renting their house, because it takes 3 years until you can really harvest it. This year I can't harvest at all, next year I can harvest a few spears for about a week, and the year after that I can have a medium size harvest of 3-4 weeks, it's not until 3 years from now that I'll be able to have a full sized harvest of 6-8 weeks worth of asparagus.  So it's not really worth it until you know you'll be in one spot for several years.

The way Asparagus grows is that the actual things we eat/buy at the grocery store- the asparagus spears- those are the "shoots" that come up in the spring. After you harvest some of them (once you can) you leave some shoots behind at the end of the harvest and they turn into these huge pretty fern-like bushes that are 6 feet tall at maturity. Every Fall when the frost comes the plants die, and you cut them off at the ground. The next year new shoots- asparagus spears- come out of the ground again! The plants last 20-30 years if you plant them well. My grandmother told me she had asparagus growing in her garden for a few decades but that they no longer grow cause it's been so long.

The best way to plant asparagus is not from seed, it's from one year old root crowns. If you plant it from seed you'll be waiting a whole extra year until harvest, and plus some of the plants will be female and some will be male- the female plants produce less asparagus but will produce lots of seed that will grow into random asparagus around your house. Not recommended for someone like me, who likes a little more control over my garden.

What I did was order 1 year old Jersey Knight Asparagus crowns online. Jersey Knight is a hybrid that has all male plants, that's disease resistant, and that is known for producing large tasty harvests. You can plant them in the spring or the fall, although I think at this point of the year it might be hard to find any and you might have to wait until the fall. You can get around 10 plants for $15-$25, and that's how many I bought. They are usually sold in bunches of 10. Around 10 plants is enough for 1 person who really really likes asparagus (and B doesn't eat them, so I wanted to plant enough for me and future theoretical asparagus loving kids, but not so much that I'd have to be giving them away at harvest). I had a patch of land about 10 feet by 3 feet where I planted these, and I figure the asparagus bushes will add to the "landscaping" of my front yard and also give a little more privacy to the house since they grow to be 6 feet tall.

 The crowns look like little aliens/flying spaghetti monsters when you get them. They were shipped in a big tangle that were placed in wood shavings. 
One you get the crowns you soak them in warm water for a few hours to loosen them up and to help separate them from each other

Then you have to plant them. I choose a spot in my front yard where there was a bunch of weeds and a few hosta plants that gets partial shade, as asparagus can do well in either partial shade or full sun. Earlier this year in February (we live in a warm growing zone) I dug up the hosta plants and moved them somewhere else and dug up the patch where I was going to plant the asparagus to loosen up the soil and mix it with a whole bunch of lime, since we have very acidic clay soil here, and asparagus likes less acidic soil (although they also grow well in heavy clay soil like the kind we have) I also had a bunch of grass mulch (from mowing the lawn) that was hanging out there ready to be mixed in with the dirt.
Supplies needed: Weedy patch of land amended with lime and grass compost, bone meal (fertilizer), mushroom compost, till (also had to use a shovel, not pictured). First I tilled the top layer of amended soil  and grass compost to the side. Under that was hard clay, and I used a shovel to dig out that clay and move it to a different part of my yard that could use more dirt (and part of it went in the backyard sinkhole). I dug a trench about a foot deep:
Once the trench was about a foot deep I poured in that bag of compost and put back some of the top soil in as well as about two handfuls of bone meal (which is a type of organic fertilizer that adds phosphorus to the soil, important for growing strong roots), and made little "mounds" for the asparagus crowns to sit on that were about 6 inches below ground level. You can plant asparagus at a rate of one crown per square foot (or even 4 per square foot for intensive gardening) but I wanted mine to have a little room to spread out since the roots spread out vertically, not horizontally. So what I ended up doing was two rows of crowns staggered
Once the crowns are in you can spread out the roots or just throw them in there, they'll grow either way. I spread them out though. After that I covered them up with about 2-3 inches of dirt. Over the next few weeks, as the asparagus starts to grow, I'll be filling in the rest of the trench little by little- the crowns tend to push themselves up out of the ground a bit when first growing, so you have to plant it first, wait for it to grow a bit, and slowly add in more dirt until it's totally full. The trick is to make sure the tops of the asparagus spears aren't covered, so you have to wait until they are tall enough to not be covered to add more dirt, but you also want to keep the crowns covered- so I may have to refill the dirt slowly over a few weeks.

Planted them Saturday, and we had heavy rain all day Sunday so it got the deep watering it needs after planting. Now I'll continue to water it heavily once a week (it needs heavy deep watering because the roots are planted very deep, especially after all the dirt is re-added). No spears yet, but when they start coming up I'll be posting some more pictures!

1 comment:

  1. Good for you; that bed will last a long time. We had two little Cairns who loved vegetables. They would sneak the occasional green pepper or look for little potatoes that didn't get into the house. We didn't begrudge them one thing. Except the asparagus!


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