Saturday, February 20, 2010

Asparagus a simple living garden perennial that can reward some basic effort with decades of healthy, delicious vegetables

Mom, the dog is eating your ferns again – I remember that from my mother's asparagus patch and my alaskan malamute who was notorious for foraging all the backyard garden for treats at just the right edge of ripeness.  She would test the tomatoes and the muscadine grapes each morning to see if they were ready and she never ate one till it was perfectly ripe.  Many many gallons of grapes and almost all my mom's asparagus, disappeared into Loki's tummy.  Well, the point of this post in not malamutes, although, I do love them,  But, we are going to discuss asparagus.  Asparagus, is one of the luxuries of simple living. The slow job of starting an asparagus bed and its place in the home garden is well rewarded in the harvest of years and years to come.

I am about to try and reestablish Asparagus in my homestead garden. My first attempt came almost 5 years ago when I tucked a few heads into a clearly wrong spot. The poor things got very little direct sun and so, of course, they sputtered around for less than a year and finally expired from lack of interest. That was a great shame- for Asparagus, like so many good things, takes an investment in time to earn its reward. It can take 3 years or more to get your first decent harvest, but if properly prepared and cared for, an asparagus bed can be productive for decades.

Asparagus is one of the very best crops one can grow under the principles of permaculture. The concept is basically that we plant permanent or long term plants and substitute efficient foraging of these crops for traditional sow and harvest agriculture. Permaculture is an attempt to minimize out need to input time and chemicals into the soil and maximize the food output. Permaculture plantings would include fruit and nut trees, perennial vegetables like asparagus, and some very alternative root and seed plants not native to our culture. Well I must say I find the idea of permanent plantings of fruit bushes and fruit and nut trees to be excellent and in keeping with the cottage garden heritage of our ancestors, On the other hand, I am not keen on the idea of most of the other plants with the exception of asparagus. But without a doubt, permaculture in general and asparagus specifically can play a good role in the simple life of a small homestead or just the backyard garden. For now, we will leave the idea of permaculture and just focus on asparagus.

Asparagus is a long lived perennial flowering plant. It is tall and lacey and has a tendency look fernish. In fact, a common plant called the asparagus fern, really does look a lot like the vegetable. All in all though, it tends to be wispy and leggy. The part we eat is actually the unopened shoots of the plants that sprout up in the spring. Asparagus has actually spread wild throughout much of the US and can be found growing along roadside and railroad tracks where it tends to blend it as a lacey weed. One can find both purely wild plants and also cultivated varieties that escaped the garden and spread into nature. If you start early in the season – usually early spring and are diligent in you search, you can find and harvest wild asparagus. Much of the asparagus brought to market in rural Europe is wild harvested.

A well prepared and tended bed can be productive from 15 to 25 years. The plant can be started from seed, but most people buy crowns – the dry root cluster of a one year old plant. Since it can take up to 3 years for asparagus to become fully productive – a one year head start is a good idea. It does take time to start producing, but once it does each crown will produce ½ pound of spears per year.

Preparing a bed of asparagus:

1) Plant asparagus at the end of the garden or in its own bed so that annual tilling does not disturb it. Since asparagus foliage is so lacey and relatively attractive and being so tall, it would make a nice addition to the back of a perennial flower border.

2) Dig a furrow – but not too deep, 5 inches should be good – the deeper you plant the crown the less shoots it produces, but you must give it 4 or 5 inches of soil to develop proper root systems.

3) Apply a layer of good compost and some high phosphate fertilizer (phosphate is the middle number on the fertilizer bag – look for something at 20 or higher X-20-X phosphate is essential for the production of spears. If you want to go organic – you can, it will only reduce yield not the quality of the asparagus.

4) Plant the crowns into the furrow on top of the compost. Asparagus is very hardy, so you need not fuss with spreading the crown roots out just so – just toss them and go.

5) Space the crowns about 1 foot apart from each other. If you are going to grow them in more than one row you will need to allow 4 to 5 feet between rows. This allows the vigorous plant to have room to grow and provide good air circulation to prevent fungus and also to allow for easy harvest.

6 After the crowns are placed, fill the furrow to its original soil level. Just be careful not to compact the soil, compacted soil is hard for sprouts to penetrate.

You should see new sprouts from the crowns in about a week. Do not harvest any of the asparagus during the planting year. These first spears will be grow quickly and reach a height of about 8 to 9 inches, the tips will open. These sprouts will become the woody center stem that will support many branches that become the ferny foliage. These first sprouts and their ferns will produce food for the plant and store it in the crown for next year’s spears. Asparagus is very drought tolerant and can usually grow watering. However, in the first year it would be wise to provide some supplemental watering during dry spells. This water will help to ensure that the crowns grow quickly and establish deep roots and healthy plants.

By the second year you could eat one or two spears if you choose, but not too many or you will be weakening the plant. It is best to wait till the 3rd year in the ground – 4 total since we started with 1 year old crowns. At that age the plant is mature and you can begin to forage delicious asparagus from a bed that can provide you health and joy for decades to come. Now anything which can be so productive for just a little work one spring, followed by 2 years of patience and a tiny amount of care thereafter, is an amazing gift of nature and well worth its place in the home garden and a key element in a simple life of self sustainable food.

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