Fresh asparagus will soon be here

March is typically the beginning of asparagus season, and if you aren’t growing your own, now is a great time to plant.

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 Asparagus is a perennial vegetable, meaning it comes back year after year, provided it gets the right care.  Plant a stand-alone bed, or devote some space along the edge of your existing garden, but since you want it to be around for years, take your time to prepare the site. 

            Asparagus crowns

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are sold at local nurseries, garden centers and farm supply stores in late winter through early spring. You will usually find one year old crowns to purchase. 

Asparagus plants need to be three years old before you begin to harvest lightly.  From the 4th year and thereafter, they are in full production.  If you over-harvest too early in the plants life, it weakens the plants for future years.

            Prepare the site well.  Remove any weeds and grass, and incorporate some compost or other organic matter.  Asparagus likes a deep, rich, well-drained soil.

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 Heavy, waterlogged soils can kill the plants.  Dig a trench six to ten inches deep by twelve inches wide.  Spread out the roots of the crowns and cover them with two inches of soil. Space the crowns 18- 24 inches apart within the row.  As the plants grow, gradually add more soil until the trench has been filled in completely.  Mulch well to keep weeds at bay.  Fertilize at planting, and again in six to eight weeks with a complete fertilizer.  Water well throughout the first two years of life.   When the plants are well-established, they tend to have a tenacious root system, which makes them fairly drought tolerant, but ample water and fertilizer will give you more vigorous plants.  When your plants are old enough to harvest, fertilize after harvest season has ended, usually in late May through early June. 

            Asparagus plants are dioecious, meaning they come in separate male and separate female plants.  Male plants produce more spears, but they tend to be smaller than the female spears, although many gardeners don’t see that much difference in yields.  Female plants do produce red berries in the summer,

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 while male plants do not.  Although you can grow asparagus from seed, it is much easier to start with crowns. 

There are numerous varieties to choose from.  Mary Washington has been around for years, and you can now find all male varieties such as Jersey Giant and Jersey Gem, and if you want something a bit different, plant Purple Passion

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which produces purple spears—they do turn green when you cook them.  Do not harvest at all until the plants are three years old.  When the plants are in their third year, you can harvest for three to four weeks.  Stop harvesting when the spears are smaller than a pencil in diameter.  The first year you plant your asparagus, don’t be disheartened by spindly top growth.  The roots are busy growing and spreading underground.  The second year they are in the ground, you will see more vigor on the top, and it should get stronger each season. 

When harvesting asparagus, you can cut the emerging spears slightly below the soil surface or snap them off.  People have personal preferences on mature size, some preferring large, fat spears, while others like the smaller, more delicate spears.  Never harvest when the spears are smaller than a pencil in diameter.

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When the season is ending, allow the small spears to grow.  As they grow, they produce delicate fern-like foliage.  The foliage can grow up to four feet tall or more by the end of the growing season.   Allow the foliage to grow until a killing frost.  Some gardeners clean it up quickly after a killing frost and mulch the planting, while others allow the dead foliage to remain until mid-winter to help shade the soil and prevent winter weeds. 

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Weeds, especially grass, can be a real problem in an asparagus bed.  If allowed to grow unchecked, weeds can compete with the asparagus and reduce yields.  That is why it is important to prepare the site and start off as weed-free as possible.  A good layer of mulch can also help with weed control.  If you spot weeds, a sharp hoe does a great job—the key is early detection and eradication.  An old-fashioned method of weed control is using salt to kill weeds and grass. While asparagus is quite tolerant of salt, I don’t like to use this method as the salt can leach to other areas of the garden and cause problems.  It also can build up in the soil and over time can even damage asparagus, so avoid this practice if possible.

Asparagus is a member of the lily family and not only is it delicious, but nutritious as well.  Asparagus has vitamin C, beta-carotene, vitamin E, and the minerals zinc, manganese and selenium and is often listed as one of the ‘super fruits’.  So if you aren’t growing it, start planting, and if you are, start harvesting.


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