Wendy S. Delmater
By Wendy S. Delmater on Sun, Jun 23, 2013 - 7:01am

Let's talk a little bit about asparagus (Asparagus officinalis var. altilis). It's a pretty commonly grown vegetable, and has been cultivated for a couple of thousand years. I'd recommend buying the dried starter roots rather than growing it from seed: I understand you lose a lot of the roots transplanting started seed. It's going to last 15 years, so the roots are not as big an expense that way.

Asparagus likes sandy, well-drained soil and full sun. Note: it does not tolerate saturated soil conditions, so if you have clay soil, choose a hilltop or hillside. If water stands in the spot in your garden/yard for only an hour, it is probably too wet for asparagus. Don't be afraid to choose really sandy soil. And if you live near the ocean, asparagus is really salt-tolerant. It's a great container gardening plant, too.

It also likes a neutral or slightly base pH, so when we prepped the soil we not only added a little compost, we added some fireplace ash. Asparagus may be nearly carefree. but you really need to keep an eye on the pH since too acid a soil mix will weaken the roots to fusarium fungi. Fusarium Root Rot can kill your asparagus.

What variety to plant? Mine were a gift, so they are Jersey Giant hybrids, but for sustainable gardening you would be better off with heirloom varieties. Non-hybrid asparagus produce an equal number of male and female plants, but hybrid asparagus will have something less than half female plants, because that increases yields: it takes a lot of energy to produce berries. But if you want to replant in 10-15 years, heirloom is best.

Hybrid asparagus varieties include the one I was gifted--Jersey Giant--as well as Jersey Knight, Jersey Supreme, Jersey Gem, and Teissen; Jersey Knight is what you usually see in the supermarket. Note: all of the above varieties are bred for northern climates. Another hybrid, UC 157 is widely grown in warmer climates. Heirloom asparagus in the United States are mostly "Washington" varieties: Mary, Martha or Waltham Washington.

Asparagus spears will start to emerge when the soil temperature reaches 50 degrees F. After this, growth of asparagus is dependent on air temperature. And as the tips of the spears start to loosen (known as "ferning out"), fiber begins to develop at the base of the spears, causing them to become tough/woody. (The diameter of the spear has no bearing on its toughness.) When harvesting, the asparagus patch should be picked clean, never allowing any spears to fern out, as this gives asparagus beetles an excellent site to lay their eggs. Pick it clean., I cannot emphasize that enough.

At 1 year after planting, asparagus can be harvested several times throughout a three-week period, depending on air temperatures. (They used to suggest you wait until the 2nd year, but research suggests that's counter-productive.)

Early in the season, 7 to 9 inch spears might be harvested every 2 to 4 days. As air temperatures increase, harvesting frequencies will increase to once or twice per day, harvesting 5 to 7 inch spears before the tips start to fern out and lose quality. The second year after planting, the length of harvest can increase to about 4 to 6 weeks. The third year after planting and thereafter, harvesting can continue for 6 to 8 weeks. Since the length of harvest season will vary from year-to-year depending on air temperature, stop the harvest when the diameter of 3/4 of the spears becomes small (less then 3/8 inch).

Harvest asparagus by snapping 7 to 9 inch spears with tight tips. Asparagus should be harvested in the morning when air temperatures are cool. After picking it, immerse the spears in ice-cold water to remove any heat; then drain the water and place the spears in plastic bags. Store in the refrigerator at 38 to 40 degrees F. Asparagus will keep for 1 to 2 weeks with little loss of quality. Or you can picle it in a water ath \canner. It cans well in a pressure canner, too. But I like it fresh :-) 

When harvest is finished, snap all the spears off at ground level. Apply compost mixed with manure, and mulch to suppress weeds.  New spears will then emerge, fern out, and provide a large canopy to cover the space between the rows. Once a dense fern canopy is formed, weed growth will be shaded out.

Our asparagus is planted as part of the front yard landscaping: to one side of our muscadine grape trellis we have tiger lilies, and those are bordered by asparagus. It's a sandy hillside in full sun, and we added a small swale at their level to catch rainfall. Our asparagus will make lovely ferns that will give a nice textural contrast to the grape leaves, the trellis uprights, and the bold slashes of green from the lily leaves. When we add and heirloom variety there will be beautiful berries in the ferns in the early fall.



Don35's picture
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good for early season

From what I've read, old timers often died in late winter/early spring as their food stores ran out. Asparagus is one of the first veggies to be available in the spring and can help you make it until other veggies come into season. It is periennial and easy to grow. I have 1/2 acre to be sold commercially and for my resilience. My Mary Washington seeds are disperced by birds so I have volunteer asparagus popping up in various places! Asparagus is a great suggestion!

Doug's picture
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old days

About 50 years ago as a teenager, I did a lot of truck farm work in eastern Washington.  Among my jobs was cutting asparagus.  We had asparagus knives that had flat ends with a sharpened V notch cut into the end, like some weeding knives I've seen in stores, but wider.  We cut the spears when they were 5-7" above the soil, and cut them about 2" below soil level.  I haven't seen that method mentioned in recent years and don't know if the thinking has changed since then or if some changes in the varieties have prompted advice to cut them above soil level.  I haven't even seen the type of knives we used in a long time.


snow's picture
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Thank you Wendy for the great info on Asparagas.  I just planted mine this spring, it is called 2 year so I thought I was supposed to let it fern this year??? Sounds like I should go cut it right before it ferns even though it is pretty small in diameter right?

Thank you again.


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Wendy S. Delmater
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Oliveoilguy's picture
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Asparagus Great In Alkaline Texas Soil

We have (4) 100' rows of Asparagus and enjoy it as the 1st. green stuff to appear in Spring. Our harvest is already over this year. But we are going to try something different. We let half of the patch fern up early while we cut the other part for 8 weeks. We are going to mow down some of the ferns in the fall and see if the plants will send up spears so that we can have a 2nd. harvest. My theory is that as long as the plants have proper "fern time" it won't matter when we harvest from them. 

We got our crowns from a commercial grower in California about 7 years ago. They are going strong. We really don't baby them at all. Just keep drip on them and fertilize with compost every 2 years. 

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