Asparagus root, dug up from the old patch and ready to be transplanted. (Mary Lowther photo)

Asparagus root, dug up from the old patch and ready to be transplanted. (Mary Lowther photo)

Mary Lowther column: Some tips on growing asparagus

When choosing asparagus I recommend buying male plants for juicier, plumper spears.

By Mary Lowther

David is fond of telling anybody who will listen that he knew he had been chosen when I planted asparagus in his back yard, because it takes a few years for the roots to produce those delicious spears. His theory credits me with a flattering degree of subtlety that I probably deserve, but it might just be that the gardener in me could not resist the allure of his large and entirely uncultivated back yard.

When choosing asparagus I recommend buying male plants for juicier, plumper spears. Female asparagus put their energy into seed production at the expense of making the most delicious crop while the males, having nothing better to do with their time, grow bigger, stronger and showier. I am tempted to digress at this point and discuss how consistent this pattern is throughout nature but we need to concentrate on today’s subject.

It may take time, but when asparagus pops up in the garden we love to chomp it raw, freshly picked while still photosynthesizing, and we won’t be waiting long now for the first spears of spring. We can buy packages of male root stock but the ones I bought had both because I wanted to propagate more but if space is limited, the experts recommend ruthlessly digging out those female roots. Once you’ve picked enough spears and have allowed the rest to grow up into fronds, the female ones will develop red berries. The males no doubt just develop attitudes.

I’ve collected these berries to dry out and sow the following year, but they took so long to dry that they moulded first. Next time I’ll either allow them to germinate where they fall and replant the offspring the following year or treat them like tomato seeds, crushing them in some water and setting them on a ledge to ferment for a few days, then rinsing them off and drying out the seeds inside.

I transplanted our asparagus from the small side yard bed to the 70 by three foot bed across the street after David rototilled the base and added compost and chicken manure. I dug holes three feet apart in a zig zag pattern and added a quarter cup of Solomon’s fertilizer with minerals into the bottom of each hole, mixing it well with the soil at the bottom of the hole. Since the soil is already damp from all the rain we’ve been having, I didn’t put water in each hole and just planted the roots directly so that each root is about four inches deep. Traditionally they were planted ten inches deep, but one gardening writer noticed that no matter how deeply he planted asparagus roots they always ended up moving to four inches deep, so I have cooperated with the inevitable.

I filled each hole over the roots and tamped them down to get rid of air holes and let the roots establish themselves before I harvest them in two or three years. I’ll set up soaker hoses alongside for the dry summertime so they don’t die, and each spring I’ll scratch in a quarter cup of fertilizer around each plant. Asparagus should be kept weed free, and I like to mulch mine once hot weather hits. After the fronds have grown out, I let them fall willy-nilly. The following spring I can tidy up and toss the dried up fronds into the compost heap.

Here’s a tip to hasten and prolong the season: stretch a layer of clear plastic over half the bed some time in February to warm up that side and encourage early spears to emerge. Once they do that, pull off the plastic before it squishes the spears and you’ll have early asparagus. I’ve tried breaking spears when harvesting, but find that cutting them works better. The cut ends are cleaner and I have better control over where the cut goes.

We like to eat fresh asparagus raw, before it knows it is in trouble, but when lightly steamed or boiled it is an ideal delivery vector for butter, more than worth the wait.

Please contact mary_lowther@yahoo.ca with questions and suggestions since I need all the help I can get.

Columngardening