Wednesday, January 21, 2009

It's So Easy To Grow Asparagus

I love asparagus grilled, steamed, sauteed, pureed, entreed or as a side, in salads, sandwiches, omelets. . .; well, you get the picture. But I hate paying high prices. Fortunately, this delicious vegetable can be grown in just about any area of the country, from USDA Climate zone 3 to 10.

Because asparagus is a perennial, it is often grown in the vegetable garden in a dedicated space where it can be left alone. But the plant is so beautiful, it can also be planted with other ornamental perennials. The lovely fern-like foliage is delicate and green in the summer and turns golden yellow in the fall. The main thing to remember is that the roots should be left undisturbed for the next few decades so your asparagus will prosper. Therefore, choose a permanent site.

Asparagus prefers full sun and rich soil that is well-drained with a pH of 6.5 to 7.0. Contact your local Cooperative Agricultural Extension Service for instructions on taking soil samples. For a nominal fee they will have it tested for you and provide you with helpful results. Make sure you specify the crop because asparagus require good levels of potassium and phosphorus in the soil. To encourage production, take a soil sample every couple of years to make sure the pH and nutrient levels are correct.

Prepare the soil according to the soil test recommendations before you receive your asparagus so you can plant as soon as possible upon receiving them. When the soil temperature has reached 50 degrees F, prepare furrows about 15 inches wide, 8 inches deep and 4 feet apart, removing weeds and debris. Incorporate lots of composted organic matter, cultivating deeply. It wouldn't hurt to sprinkle wood ashes and bone meal to the furrow. If you use synthetic fertilizer, incorporate it into the soil a couple of weeks before planting. Pack the enriched soil in the bottom of the trench and add a thin layer of topsoil.

Soak the roots in a bucket of water for a few minutes to rehydrate them. Place them in the trench 6 to 8 inches below the top of the furrow, crown up, about 12 inches apart. Add a couple of inches of topsoil to cover the roots. The plant crown should be just at the soil surface. Water deeply. Add more soil, if necessary. As the new shoots begin to grow, you should gradually add more topsoil around the shoots. Keep in mind that asparagus does not appreciate standing water, so soil may eventually be mounded around the plants to aid drainage.

Regular weeding is very important, but be careful not to disturb the crowns. Asparagus is quite drought tolerant, but adequate water is essential during plant establishment for the first two years. About 1 inch of water per week during the growing season should be sufficient.

Resist the urge to harvest your asparagus spears the first year. The plants must be well-established in order to provide abundant crops later. If you must, you may harvest a few spears the second year, but it would be best to wait. The third year you will be rewarded for your patience when you may harvest a few spears for about a month during the spring.

Productivity is enhanced by spreading a top-dressing of well-composted manure in the fall. In early spring before growth begins, cultivate the soil lightly. This will allow the soil to dry and warm a bit, encouraging earlier emergence. The earliest shoots are most tender. Harvesting ceases when the shoots begin to contain tough fibers. Always remember, even when your garden is well-established that you must leave enough spears to mature and strengthen your planting.

The asparagus beetle is a common pest in some parts of the country, feeding on the plants during the summer. Rotenone and malathion are commonly used to control them. If you choose to use chemicals, whether synthetic or organic, carefully follow label instructions. Companion planting is a popular technique among gardeners for repelling harmful insects. It is said that planting marigolds nearby helps to repel the beetles. Furthermore, asparagus seems to grow better in the presence of basil, nasturtiums, parsley and tomatoes. Asparagus does not do so well with mint and onions close by.

Pest populations can also be reduced by eliminating their hiding places. Remove and destroy top growth of asparagus when it turns brown to avoid attracting harmful insects. Weeding is equally important. 

At maturity, 100 feet of row may produce over 75 pounds of shoots.  When harvesting asparagus, cut the shoots at soil surface to avoid damaging those still below the surface.  The best time to harvest is in early morning so that the shoots are not exposed to heat.  Place the cut ends in a container of cool water to avoid wilting.