Thin vs. fat asparagus, which is better?

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By Jeneen Wiche

I was catching up on some magazine reading the other day and on two occasions I read the phrase “choose thin spears” and I got so frustrated. 

These spring articles were about asparagus, and I would like to go on the record that when it comes to homegrown asparagus – and even the wild growing in the fencerows – fat is good!  The fat spears have always been tender from the garden; so don’t let anyone fool you on the fresh from the garden variety. They are particularly well suited for the charcoal grill.

I have planted asparagus three times in my lifetime.  First with my dad when I was 12 years old, and we are still enjoying asparagus from that bed today. The second time was a small batch of a purple variety that never really amounted to much because we had a terrible drought that summer. And the third, and hopefully last, was 100 crowns Andy and I set out in 2012.  Planting asparagus is an investment on all accounts, time, labor, money, patience and then the big payoff, which is fresh asparagus for 2 months each spring right from your own garden. I look forward to this new bed really paying off this spring.

Perhaps you are not interested in the volume of work and yield those 100 crowns offer, so maybe 25 planted in a permanent spot in the garden will suffice.  Asparagus is a perennial, so be certain about where you plant and be serious about preparing the planting bed. This is the hardest part, but once it is done, it is done!  Asparagus will continue to produce for 30 years or more if it is properly maintained, and our original planting is proof of that.

Prepare a 10-inch deep trench that is about 2 feet wide; add lots of organic matter like composted manure if your soil is clayey.  We use a stagger pattern to plant the crowns – imagine the paw prints of a cat and plant accordingly – spacing the center of the crowns about 12 inches apart.  To get asparagus started it is not a bad idea to add a little phosphorus into the mix, so I sprinkle a little bone meal into the trench before spreading out the roots of each crown and planting.  Cover the crowns with about 2 inches of soil, reserving the remaining soil for later.

The unique thing about planting asparagus is that we add soil gradually over several weeks.  Cover the crowns little by little as they emerge from dormancy and poke above the soil surface. Each time they peak out, that’s our prompt to add more soil until we are back even with the soil surface.   Keep the plants evenly moist during this time.

When you purchase your asparagus crowns it will be noted how old they are (you can tell, too, by how robust they are) if you purchased 2-3 year old crowns you can start harvesting a little by next year but it really is best to leave them be during the first year so they can go straight to fern. 

At the fern stage the plant can maximize photosynthesis and pack in the energy to develop a strong root system and therefore higher yields next year.  Harvest a little next year and then you should be ready to really enjoy by the third year after planting

Long term maintenance includes weeding – which, as a perennial crop does become a problem after years in the same place, try using corn gluten as a pre-emergent – also don’t cut asparagus tops, the ferny growth, back until it has naturally died back. The plants need to store energy throughout the summer and fall through their foliage for a good crop the following spring. 

We have done it all – hand cut, mower, fire – and last year the best ever, we let the sheep graze the patch, which also eliminated leftover weeds!

If you have pest problems, burning it from time to time may help. But the conditions must be right to get it ablaze. And, of course, only burn if you are safe to do so in proximity to others and to buildings. 

You can fertilize during active fern growth after the harvest season with composted manure or a balanced granular. I like the mixes that are organic like Espoma’s product line, or make your own mixing cottonseed meal, bone meal and kelp.

Check out gardening columnist Jeneen Wiche’s work at www.SwallowRailFarm.com. You can find her columns also at www.SentinelNews.com/agriculture. She answers questions once a month in SentinelNewsPlus. To submit a question, send an E-mail to jwiche@shelbybb.net and type “Sentinel-News” in the subject field.