By the time you read this I should be back home in New York, after my winter in Florida. It was a great winter overall for me, but I am anxious to be in the mountains once more. Spring is slow to arrive most years in the Hudson Valley and even slower in the Catskill Mountains, but when it does, it is so sweet! Let’s face it, you would not appreciate spring so much, if winters were not so awful!
Perhaps the first vegetable we harvest each year is asparagus. Freshly harvested asparagus from a few southern states is already showing up in local supermarkets. As tempting as the supermarket asparagus appears, I prefer to wait a few weeks until the really local product is available. Asparagus is one of those vegetables, like sweet corn and tomatoes that tastes best when eaten within hours of harvest. I remember when asparagus was one of my most hated items on the dinner table along with beets, Brussels’s sprouts and peas. These three vegetables are now among my favorites. I suspect that one of the reasons why I hated these vegetables so much was because I was only offered the canned version. Canned asparagus is pretty awful, I must admit, but fresh asparagus is delicious! It is also pretty easy to grow. Here is how to do it!
Remember that asparagus is a perennial vegetable that should produce annual crops for the next 20 years, or even longer. Therefore it is wise to take the time and effort to grow it properly. Most books that describe asparagus culture tell you to begin by digging a trench 12 to 18 inches deep. Well, that rules out half of our soils, which are either too shallow or too rocky to dig that deep. A six-inch deep trench, by four inches wide is quite sufficient, especially if the trench is made in a 12 inch tall raised bed to begin with. Before you dig the trench eliminate any perennial weeds such as quackgrass, by either applying a non-selective herbicide or using black plastic mulch. If you place a layer of 4 millimeter black plastic over the area in late April and leave it on for a month, most of the perennial weeds beneath it will be killed by the time you remove the plastic.
After digging the trench and removing all stones, mix some bagged, composted manure or just compost with the soil you have removed. A forty-pound bag of composted manure costs about $6.00 and will suffice for 20 feet of row. Purchase two-year-old, dormant asparagus crowns for planting. You will need about one crown for every twelve inches of row. Examine the crowns carefully and cut off any broken or moldy roots. Discard any moldy crowns. Set the crowns in the bottom of the trench and just barely cover them with the mixed soil and manure. Fan out the skinny roots on each side of the crown so the crowns are about 18 inches apart in the row.
Within a few weeks the crowns should sprout a few toothpick thin spears. Gradually cover the growing spears with the soil mix as they grow until the trench is full by mid-summer. Keep the row well weeded and let the asparagus grow without any harvest for the first two seasons. When the asparagus bed is well established, in five or six years, you can use table salt to suppress many of the weeds. Until then, be diligent and keep it either hand weeded or heavily mulched. Apply 2 pounds of 5-10-10 fertilizer or 10 pounds of composted manure for each 25 feet of row each spring before the spears emerge. Remove the dead tops either in late winter or early spring each year. During the first two years the plant will develop an extensive root system. In the third season harvest all the spears that come up for two weeks. All the spears should be harvested in order for the roots to send up new ones. Don’t allow even a few spears to grow into fern.
By the fourth season you may harvest for a month and by the fifth season you may harvest everything that comes up until the fourth of July. A winter mulch of 8 to 12 inches of shredded maple leaves will help to keep the beds weed free as the spears will easily push up though this mulch layer, but most weeds will not.
The earliest I have ever harvested from my bed in Conesville (elevation around 1400 feet) was May 2 and the latest I had to wait was May 12. My bed is about 19 years old now and still growing strong.