Asparagus enjoys a long held reputation for nutritional benefits and culinary versatility. Once a species of lily, it is now its own family in the floral kingdom. Asparagus possesses nearly 100 phyto-nutrient compounds, and is rich in antioxidants like vitamins C and K, folate, copper, zinc and potassium.
Although many of these robust elements are offset by asparagus’ common companion—hollandaise sauce—this vegetable is both healthful and delicious in numerous, less decadent, preparations. The key is to find the right breed and not to overcook. To maximize the gastronomic experience, gardeners should learn how to grow asparagus at home.
Choosing the Time and Place
A cool season crop, asparagus does best when gardeners plant it in early spring, just as soon as the soil is malleable enough. In fact, the root systems used to plant this produce—“crowns”—become available for ordering in the late winter. Worth remembering is the fact that strong, prolific asparagus plants can take two to three years to bear worthy spears. Once mature, they can produce for up to two decades.
Location of a garden bed is important because this plant is somewhat finicky about its habitat. Asparagus does not like the wet. Avoid spots where standing water tends to accumulate or where clay dominates the soil. If clay is everywhere, planters are wise to find a raised surface or hillside where drainage is assisted by gravity.
Preparing the Soil Bed
For optimal conditions, the soil should be purged of previous vegetation and root systems. Exhaustive weeding fosters better growth and fertility. Ideally, this earth should rank low in acidity and rich with nutrients. Utilizing a garden fork or tiller, the planter should break up the loam to a depth of six to eight inches throughout the designated area.
Follow this up with a spread of composted manure over same, mixing it in thoroughly. Kitchen waste compost is also an effective additive. If the soil tests well under seven in alkalinity, add lime to raise the pH. Asparagus needs abundant sunlight. So, prune and clear any limbs and branches that inhibit its coverage.
Choosing the Cultivar
How to grow asparagus starts with this question: what is the best variety to grow? This is a more complex inquiry than meets the eye. Asparagus comes in two sexes, for one thing. For another, out of such breeding comes a plethora of hybrids. Among the most popular kinds are the Jersey Series, the Purple Passion (it’s only purple when raw), the Apollo and the Atlas varieties.
Horticulturalists believe that male asparagus hybrids give up higher yields and resist diseases better than other cultivars. These traits appeal, of course, to commercial growers. Home gardeners, on the other hand, can afford riskier plants like the Mary Washington and Precoce D’Argenteuil heirloom types, both popular in Europe for their sweeter flavor.
Planting the Crowns
Asparagus crowns come from transplants or from commercial nurseries. After digging trenches 12 inches deep and 12 inches wide, create cone-shaped mounds about every foot and a half in each channel. Be sure to keep the trenches at least two feet from one another. Atop each mound place a crown, flaring its roots. Cover the mounds with a couple of inches of soil; then replace the loam between the mounds.
As the crowns grow and sprout, move soil to keep them covered. They will reach a depth of six to eight inches before maturity. As they grow, the gardener should be filling in the trenches with the dirt originally removed. This is an important step in how to grow asparagus.
Fertilizing the Plants
Starting out with a nutrient-dense soil bed is essential because asparagus pulls elements from the ground with a hungry gusto. Accordingly, generous fertilization is necessary for these plants to flourish and produce to the full extent of their years. Vibrant fertilizing takes place as the new crowns begin to grow. This allows the root system to fortify and expand.
At this point, optimal fertilizer composition is equal parts nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Two pounds of fertilizer should cover 100 square feet. When the plants are more mature (four years), annual applications should transition from late spring to early summer—just after harvesting. Extra nitrogen might be needed by now, too.
Water and Irrigation
Those wondering how to grow asparagus that is both healthy and tasty should never forget about watering. While experienced growers extol copious amounts of sunlight and decry poorly drained earth, the fact remains that asparagus needs water. However, if rainfall is adequate, gardeners best rely on natural irrigation. Long periods without precipitation, on the other hand, are dangerous to spear generation. By all means, water the asparagus…with good judgment and restraint.
Harvest and Preservation
Some strong self-control is required here. You will see spears (or shoots) in that first year of learning how to grow asparagus. They might be six to nine inches long. The best strategy is to do nothing. In subsequent years, harvest spears sparingly until about the 48 month mark. Then a more aggressive harvest is acceptable. Collecting spears too early or too intensively reduces the vigor of the crops. Take no more than four pounds annually.
Fresh spears will last up to 10 days in a refrigerator at around 36˚F. For longer storage times, you can blanch them in boiling water, bathe them in ice-cold water and wrap them up for freezing.
Although not a favorite with many children, asparagus is a beloved vegetable with seemingly endless methods for preparation. Done right, in fact, kids of any age will enjoy this nutritious food. Central to its best flavor, texture and aroma are its growing conditions. Taking care to prepare the soil, cultivate the ferns, feed the plants and regulate the moisture goes a long way in the quest of how to grow asparagus. Patient harvesting will complete the journey.