Asparagus - First to Harvest
May 23, 2019
I heard a story last week that made me laugh and reminisce on my early days married to Linda. A friend was telling me about a man, a jogger, who was observed jogging along a particular path every few days but would turn off the path at a certain point. He'd be gone for a few minutes then he would reappear with some plants in his hand then would start jogging again. He was always watching to see if he had been observed. The person relating the original story thought it was suspicious and believed the jogger was growing marijuana and stopped to check his plants. Turns out, the jogger had found a patch of wild asparagus and was trying to keep it secret so no one else would be cutting those delicious plants. He wanted to save them for himself. Asparagus does grow wild in several parts of Wyoming, sometimes right along a road. Linda and I used to cut wild asparagus whenever we went to visit her sister in Sundance. Tasty.
Asparagus is a very prolific plant once it matures and can be harvested every couple of days for almost two months. It's hardy and doesn't require a lot of effort once it's established, except for weeding and watering. Just like every other vegetable. Every year, I have the best of intentions to clean out my asparagus beds of the old foliage before the spears start coming up. I leave the dead stalks through the winter to help catch snow. This year I knew I was going to be on time when I went out to clean the beds. Not hardly. I already had a harvest ready. Asparagus is usually the vegetable that is first in line for harvest. Unfortunately, this year, that last major cold snap got the bulk of the first spears that came up. I got just enough for a single serving on that first cutting.
This tasty plant is a perennial which means that it will come back year after year for an easy and delicious harvest. The plants have been known to last 20 years or more. Selecting the variety is pretty easy. For the most part, any variety with the word "Jersey" in the name will produce a bulk of male stalks. Male stalks are larger, often as big around as your thumb, and are more prolific. Female stalks expend most of their energy producing the berries and seeds, so they are much thinner and there are fewer of them. Other varieties produce a greater number of female stalks. The flavor is still very good, there is simply less vegetable to harvest.
Planting asparagus is easy, but a little time consuming. Crowns, 1-year old plants, are what is normally planted. Choose a reputable nursery when purchasing your crowns. Before they arrive, have your rows ready so you can plant right away. Choose a sunny spot with good drainage. Dig a trench 6-8 inches deep and about 12-18 inches wide. Set the soil aside to use later. Loosen the soil at the bottom for another 3-4 inches and mix in a good compost and leave it in the bottom. Make sure the trench remains 6-8 inches deep. Set the crowns about 12-18 inches apart and cover with just enough soil/compost mix to cover the crown. Water then make sure that none of the crown is exposed after watering. This should leave about 4 inches of trench open. When the plants are up about an inch, cover them with about 2 inches of the soil/compost mix. Continue this process until the ground is level in your bed then mound the soil slightly over the plants to keep water from pooling around the crowns. Drainage is a good thing. Then let the plants grow. Water as often as needed to keep the ground moist, but not soggy. Don't harvest anything the first year. The plants need this time to grow their roots and establish themselves in the bed. Keep the weeds out to eliminate competition for nutrients and water. After the stalks turn brown in the fall, you can cut them back to ground level to clean out the bed. Unless you're using them to hold snow. Adding about 2 inches of mulch will help keep the weeds down and will keep your harvest cleaner.
When the plants come up the following spring, you can harvest lightly for 3-4 weeks. Then let the plants grow. They'll need the extra stalks to produce food for that winter. The plants still aren't mature and will need the extra nutrients to make it through. In the third year, you'll be able to harvest pretty heavy. My third-year bed (about 10 plants) produced 2 gallons of spears last year. In two harvests this year, I already have a half gallon with about 6 more weeks to harvest. Harvest asparagus when the spears are 6-8 inches tall and about a half inch thick. The "Jersey" varieties can be quite a bit thicker. That's okay. At this height, the spears will be the most tender. Although they can be harvested taller, they will tend to be tougher and more fibrous. They'll still have a good flavor. You'll just need to chew longer. Check your plants every day even though you may harvest every other day. Asparagus is best cooked immediately, but freezes and cans very well, too. Pickled asparagus is a favorite for many people. Harvest by cutting the spears with a sharp knife right at the soil line. Then rinse with cold water to remove dirt and any other debris. Factoid: I always munch a few spears while I'm harvesting. In other words, it's also great raw. If you are going to freeze asparagus, don't bother blanching it first. After rinsing, just let it dry before putting it in a plastic bag to freeze. It's simple and easy. By letting it dry first, you can take out just as many spears as you need for dinner and put the rest back in the freezer. Asparagus is one of the easiest veggies to preserve and keeps very well.
There are many, many recipes for asparagus. Everything from raw (that's best when fresh), to steamed, to soups. If I'm barbequing, I'll put it on the grill right along with everything else. A word of caution here, though. Asparagus doesn't take long to cook if you harvested at the right time. If you aren't careful you can overcook it and end up with a pile of mush. It's wonderful steamed with a sauce over it. You can use almost any sauce you prefer. They all go well. Did I mention that asparagus is versatile? A quick way to enjoy asparagus, is to steam it, then cover it with mushroom soup, undiluted. Hollandaise sauce, cheese and butter are other dressings for asparagus. It can be battered and fried or even fried with bacon or baked in a quiche. Note to self: Everything is good with bacon.
Asparagus is a tasty vegetable that is very easy to grow and harvest. It keeps well and is exceptionally nutritious. Simply put, a great plant to grow. If you have any questions, ask a Master Gardener. It's what we do.