Spargelzeit – Aparagus Time!

Asparagus collage

I’ve been gardening off and on since I was sixteen. All that time, I’ve wanted to grow asparagus. The problem is that it takes three years to get established before you really get to harvest it. I went from high school to college to postgrad to married life in an apartment, and nowhere in there could I devote three years to a plant. Most of that time, I didn’t even have a yard! It was with great joy that I could plant asparagus for the first time in my life this year. Let me tell you how it went. 

Plotting The Spot: The first step was picking a spot to grow it. Asparagus can grow up to five feet of feathery fronds, so it does best in a place where it can get that tall without shading anything else out. I wanted a full sun spot for it so I could pamper it. Luckily, I had a very sunny spot in the front yard. I marked out an 8’x3′ plot in my mind, ready to dig it up for planting.

Picking A Variety: Asparagus can be bought as seeds or crowns, which are year-old roots. Crowns are much more expensive than seeds, but you get something that you know will establish in the first season. The next determination is on the variety. ‘Martha Washington’ is the old-timer variety, but it produces female plants as well. This is a problem because it will spend its energy making seeds instead of stashing energy to make asparagus shoots next season. Lower productivity is bad. The two other varieties you’ll see are ‘Jersey Knight’ and ‘Jersey Supreme’ (both developed at Rutgers in… yep, New Jersey). I couldn’t really see a difference in the two so I ordered ‘Jersey Supreme’ from Gurney’s.

A side note: I like Gurney’s just fine. Their prices were a bit cheaper than Johnny’s and I don’t really care about organic seedstock, especially when I’m not going to be eating it for several years. Asparagus is expensive to buy in crowns, as I said above; my 20 were $60 shipped. I’m sure you can bargain-shop for these at a local nursery, though.

Planting the Crowns: Asparagus likes loose, deep, fertile soil. I used a tiller to bust up the grass in the front, then another tiller pass to loosen up the soil to a depth of about eight inches. The jury is out on whether you should ever till, but the consensus is that for virgin ground or grass, tilling is a good, fast way to prepare a seed bed. It’s also good for mixing in soil amendments, which is exactly what I did.

Last fall, Danielle and I cleared out our driveway and the side of the house of all the decomposed leaves that the former owner never cleared. There was, in the words of Monty Python, “some lovely filth over here.” Danielle and I had a great time shoveling it out and passing it through my home-made screen to filter out sticks and leaves. We were left with gorgeous, black, cake-like leaf compost. Garden gold. I stored it in a pile at the back of the yard over the winter for an occasion like this.

I put a wheelbarrow full of that black humus onto the top of the asparagus ditch, spread it about with a steel rake and tilled it in. From there, it was dead simple to make holes for the asparagus, a foot apart and about ten inches deep. I agonized about how deep to plant them; some people say you should dig ten inches down but only cover with two inches of dirt, mounding it up each week as they grow up. I am a lazy gardener and I’d read from Eliott Coleman that you can just pile it all on top and the asparagus will know which way to go. Turns out, we were right.

aparagus emergent

When you’ve just stuck $60 into the ground, anxiety is natural. I watered them extensively, added a little blood meal and obsessed. About a week out, I got gutsy and started gently digging around. I found a few tiny shoots coming up, which was a great sign – I didn’t screw up by planting too deeply!

Over the next few weeks, the anxiety did not subside. Only recently have the last of the shoots come up. I’m going to mulch the bed next week so that they can retain more moisture and shade out competing weeds. The cover picture for this post is what the asparagus fronds look like. If you didn’t pick the shoots, that’s what they eventually grow into. Not a bad look, kind of like an ornamental grass. They will look good in the front yard in a bed that I’ve bordered with fieldstone and in a few years’ time, I’ll be able to pick fresh asparagus and eat it in the same hour.

Here’s to putting down roots somewhere.