Sanctuary Spotlight: How to Grow Asparagus

One of my favorite winter crops is asparagus. It’s one of those vegetables you either love or you hate. And I love it! It was one of the first things I planted in my garden, and today I just reaped the first reward of that planting – the best asparagus I’ve ever tasted times ten! So, I thought I’d celebrate by making my first Sanctuary Spotlight about asparagus.

GENERAL INFORMATION:

Asparagus officinalis, commonly known as asparagus, is a perennial that got its name from the Persian word asparag, meaning “a sprout.” When in full fern, it grows one to three feet high and spreads three to six feet.

Raw asparagus is high in fiber and quite nutritious. It is rich in the amino acid asparagine (which got its name from asparagus), vitamin K, vitamin A, vitamin C, thiamine, folic acid, riboflavin, iron, copper, and manganese.

The buds on asparagus spears that aren’t harvested open and become beautiful fern that eventually produce round white seeds that turn red and drop.

PLANTING ASPARAGUS:

Asparagus can grow in all hardiness zones EXCEPT zones 10-11 because it needs cold winter temperatures to make it go dormant for a while. Even people in areas with extremely cold winters can grow asparagus.

Asparagus needs well-drained, neutral soil (pH = 7.0). Because its roots can reach six to ten feet deep, a deep raised bed is an excellent way to grow it. It grows in full sun to partial shade and likes medium moisture. Before planting, add enough sand to your soil for good drainage. Also, augment your soil with mushroom compost, which adds nutritional value without lowering the pH. Turn and blend well for a good, loamy mixture.

Although you can grow asparagus from seed, it is much easier and yields a quicker harvest if you plant asparagus crowns, or roots. To plant the crowns, dig a hole that’s as wide as the roots are when fanned out. Mound the soil in the center of the hole and place the crown in the center of the mound with the roots evenly spread over the mound. The top of the crown should be at or just below the soil line when the hole is filled.

How to plant asparagus crowns

How to plant asparagus crowns

Fill the hole and water well. Regular watering should occur when the top portion of the soil becomes dry. Be careful not to over water. Asparagus doesn’t like “wet feet.”

Soon, spears thinner than a pencil will poke through the soil. Here is where you will need to engage that ethereal gardening tool called patience because you cannot harvest any asparagus for the first year. When the spears are allowed to grow and bud, energy is directed to the roots, allowing the roots to strengthen and spread. That means more asparagus next year.

New asparagus fern

New asparagus fern

As the season progresses, more and more spears will sprout through the soil. Some will be as thick as a pencil.

New asparagus spears

New asparagus spears

The top of the spears will spread open and fine branches will grow out, becoming beautiful fern. By the end of the summer, your bed will be full of asparagus fern!

Asparagus fern Oct 2012~first year growth~

Asparagus fern in October
~first year growth~

When fall arrives, the fern will begin to turn yellow. After the first frost, cut down all the fern at the soil level and add a layer of composted cow manure about an inch or so thick. This will add nitrogen to the soil and feed the roots.

HARVESTING ASPARAGUS:

In the spring, when the soil temperature reaches about 50 degrees, new asparagus spears will pop through the soil. If the spears are as thick as a pencil or larger, you can harvest them when they reach about eight inches tall but before the buds open (else the spear will turn woody). Cut the spear just below the soil level, at an angle, with small pruning shears. Then, cover the “stump” with soil.

During the second year, harvest spears for no longer than 2-3 weeks. When your spears are thinner than a pencil – or your spears are growing very slowly – stop harvesting. Allow the spears to grow and become fern so your roots can strengthen and grow more. During your third year and beyond, you can harvest spears for six to eight weeks. You know the harvest is over when the spears begin to grow thinner than a pencil. At that point, you let them grow and become fern. You will get a harvest annually for 15 to 25 years!

Today, I harvested my first asparagus spear. I let them grow last year, and second-year spears began poking through the soil this week – about a month early, thanks to our unseasonably warm January weather. I rushed inside to wash it and eat it; and in my haste, I broke the spear in half. But I still measured it:

First asparagus harvest

First asparagus harvest

I couldn’t believe it was 12 inches long! When I left for work this morning, it wasn’t quite long enough to harvest. It grew close to four inches just today. I read that asparagus can grow seven inches in one day when the weather is 90 degrees. It was close to 80 today, so I’m not surprised.

Because asparagus spears can grow so quickly, I decided to take pictures over the course of four days and create a slide show of their growth.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

FROM GARDEN TO KITCHEN:

Asparagus is best eaten raw or lightly steamed (often with butter). It can also be pickled and stored for years. Here are a few recipes for you to try:

Baked Asparagus with Balsamic Butter Sauce

Asparagus Frittata

Asparagus Lemon Pasta

Asparagus is a wonderful addition to any garden, and it’s not as difficult to grow as many people think. January is the time to plant it in the Charleston, SC area. Add asparagus to your winter planting, and you will enjoy its culinary delights for years to come!

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