The following 101, on growing asparagus, comes from HOMEGROWN member Going Rogue. You can read more about her family's adventures farming Oregon’s Rogue Valley on her blog. Thanks so much, GR, and please keep the good ideas sprouting!
When it comes to farming, each new season brings its joys and its pleasures, but nothing symbolizes the rebirth and promise of spring like those first shoots of asparagus breaking through the soil shortly after the last frost. It’s a moment we look forward to each year on our property in southern Oregon.
We’ve been growing asparagus, in addition to other fruits and vegetables, as well as raising chickens for eggs and meat, for the last three years. Of all our endeavors, our decision to cultivate asparagus has been one of the most rewarding thus far. Asparagus is delicious, but in the past my family had usually reserved it for special occasions due to the high cost. Then, while scanning a seed catalog and planning our garden one winter, my gaze landed on asparagus. For some reason, it had never occurred to me that we could grow our own. The more I researched, the more excited I became. Although asparagus plants require care and patience, your diligence is rewarded with 20 years of productivity.
WHAT TO PLANT
There are lots of varieties of asparagus available. The Jersey family—including Supreme, which we grow on our farm, and Knight—is developed to produce all-male plants and a higher yield of shoots. Other varieties include Sweet Purple, Purple Passion, and Mary Washington. The purples tend to be sweeter and more tender. The Mary Washington, an older common variety, in particular produces good yields of tender, flavorful shoots.
To begin growing asparagus, you can purchase plants as individual crowns. Look for those that are grayish brown in color and appear plump. You can also purchase seeds, but these take six weeks to germinate, and you’ll need to add yet another year onto the time until you can harvest.
WHEN TO PLANT
WHERE TO PLANT
Asparagus plants need good drainage and full sun. They require a soil pH of 6.5 to 7.5, so test your soil and amend as necessary.
HOW TO PLANT
When planting asparagus, dig a trench about 12 inches deep and 12 to 18 inches wide. Trench digging is by far the most time-consuming aspect of the project, but it’s important to ensure the plants are healthy and that the root system becomes well established. The individual crowns should be planted 15 to 18 inches apart, with the soil mounded up underneath the crowns. The roots should then be spread over the mound and around the crown like a many-legged spider. Initially, you'll want to cover the plant with a few inches of soil. As your plants grow, you can keep adding more soil until the trench is filled. If you have clay-rich soil, you may want to consider double digging your soil and using compost to cover your crowns.
(A quick-and-dirty how-to on double digging: Dig your first trench, breaking up the underlayer and mixing it with compost. Then dig your next trench and use the soil you remove to fill the first trench. Continue this process for however many trenches you'd like. Use the soil from the last trench to fill in the first trench.)
Asparagus likes to grow near dill, coriander, tomatoes, parsley, comfrey, marigolds, nasturtiums, and basil; when planted close to the latter, it tends to encourage ladybugs. Avoid planting asparagus near onions, garlic, or potatoes. For more on what gets along with what in the garden, check out the Companion Planting 101.
PESTS AND PROBLEMS
In order to keep your plants healthy and productive, you’ll want to keep a few things in mind. Asparagus’s biggest enemy is competition from other plants, so it’s important to keep the bed well weeded. Other key considerations: Make sure you don't overwater the plants and that you locate them in well-draining soil.
When it comes to pests, you have two main concerns: the common asparagus beetle and the spotted asparagus beetle. Of the two, the common asparagus beetle does the most damage. The common beetle has six cream-colored squares on its back. The spotted beetle is dark orange with 12 black spots. These beetles can cause browning, scarring, and drooping of the plants. You can plant petunias near asparagus to help discourage the presence of beetles, but if you do spot them, it’s not too late. Simply scrape any eggs off your asparagus spears, and drop adult bugs and larvae into soapy water.
Asparagus are also susceptible to something called asparagus rust, which appears as small reddish-brown spots on the stems and can be treated with organic fungicides.
WATERING AND HARVESTING
Your watering schedule depends on your climate. You don't want to let the asparagus get dry during the growing season, so watering deeply (down to about 8 inches) once every one to two weeks is appropriate. If you live in a wetter climate, your asparagus may not require any supplementary watering.
Now here’s the tough news: The first year after planting, you will not be able to harvest any spears. Depending on variety and the age of the crowns when planted (one versus two years old), you may be able to lightly harvest for two weeks or so the following year. By the third year, the plants should be mature—and then you’ve got upwards of 20 years of productivity ahead of you. Once the plants are mature, the asparagus harvest will last six weeks, and spears can be harvested every one to three days. You can harvest individual spears once they reach 6 to 8 inches in height. Simply snap or cut them off at the soil level.
When cooking asparagus, your methods can be as simple or as complex as you want. Personally, I like to keep it simple. My favorite method is to boil asparagus for about 5 minutes in water. I then remove the spears and sauté them in butter or olive oil with sea salt, garlic, and a little crushed red pepper.
MORE THINGS TO GROW
• From Lucy: Growing Lettuce 101
• From Kathryn: Growing Microgreens 101
• From Matt and High Ridge Farm: Growing Peas 101
• From High Mowing Organic Seeds: Growing Garlic 101
Got a question for Going Rogue or another tip for growing asparagus? Post it below and keep the conversation rolling. You can dig up more things to sow early in the Fall and Winter Planting 101s, and you can always find more things to plant, grow, make, craft, cook, preserve, and tend in the HOMEGROWN 101 library.
PHOTOS: (SPEARS IN HAND) CHIOT'S RUN, COURTESY OF FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS; (CROWNS FOR PLANTING) KIGHTP, COURTESY OF FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS; (PLANTING IN TRENCH) JOHN PAUL GOGUEN, COURTESY OF FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS; (CLOSE-UP CROWNS IN TRENCH) WILLOW GARDENERS, COURTESY OF FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS; (COMMON BEETLE) KEITH EDKINS, COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS; (SPOTTED BEETLE) KIM HANSEN, COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS; (SHOOTS) CATFUNT, COURTESY OF FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS; (HARVESTING SPEARS) BEN AMSTUTZ, COURTESY OF FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS; (THREE SPEARS) CSKK, COURTESY OF FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS