Planting an asparagus bed was one of the best gardening decisions I ever made.
Year after year, starting in early March, nutrient-rich spears begin pushing their way through cool garden soil in search of warm sunlight. I’m sure you can guess who is eagerly waiting bedside when the nutrient-rich spears break ground?
Every third day, for six straight weeks, I snap off several dozen succulent spears, eating some on the spot — I love crunchy, raw asparagus — and reserve others for the grill, sauté pan or steamer. Following the four- to six-week spring harvest season, I enjoy watching asparagus develop lush, fern-like summer foliage that reaches 4 to 5 feet in height. The beautiful fine-textured foliage creates a perfect backdrop for summer-flowering perennials and annuals. Perennial borders and flower beds are made more beautiful by the addition of a clump or two of asparagus. This long-lived vegetable truly is the poster child for the “edible” landscape.
Asparagus is ridiculously easy to grow. I helped a lawyer friend — whose gardening skills are at best modest — plant an asparagus bed some 15 years ago. The 4-foot-wide by 20-foot-long bed faithfully produces loads of spears every spring, more than enough to meet his needs and to share with lucky neighbors. If a busy lawyer with two brown thumbs can grow asparagus, anyone can grow asparagus.
Asparagus may be started from seed or crowns. Starting with crowns is the better way to go. You will be harvesting spears much sooner if you start with crowns. Crowns are dormant, 1-, 2- or 3-year-old bare-root plants. I typically see Mary Washington crowns, an old heirloom variety, offered at local garden centers. It’s a good, but not great, variety. Newer hybrid varieties are much more productive than heirloom varieties.
One may purchase modern hybrid asparagus crowns online from companies like Starks Brothers, Gurney’s and Burpee. Mail-order companies ship crowns through the end of April. Older crowns cost a little more, but they produce harvestable spears much sooner.
Also, I encourage gardeners to plant hybrid male asparagus varieties. That’s not being botanically chauvinistic. Female varieties are slightly less productive than their male counterparts and they set seed, which may require some weed pulling during summer months. Many of the most productive male varieties were bred at Rutgers University in New Jersey. These include Jersey King, Jersey Knight and Jersey Giant, among others.
Plant asparagus in sunny, well-drained locations. Start by digging a trench 8 to 12 inches wide and deep. Place crowns in the bottom of the trench and spread roots out flat. Clip and remove any broken or dead roots. Space the crowns approximately 18 inches apart and cover with 3 to 5 inches of soil. As young spears break ground, gradually cover with an inch or two of new soil until the surrounding ground level is reached. Apply a slow-release 18-6-12 Osmocote fertilizer in the spring according to label instructions.
This last bit of advice will be tough to follow: Don’t harvest any spears the first growing season. Allow plants to grow and establish a root system. The second year, harvest spears for only two weeks. The third year and beyond, harvest spears for up to four to six weeks. Late February through March is the ideal time to plant asparagus.
Barry Fugatt is director of horticulture at the Tulsa Garden Center and the Linnaeus Teaching Garden. He can be reached at 918-576-5152, e-mail: email@example.com