As you’re wandering through the markets this spring, you’ll most likely find bundles of colorful tender asparagus, waiting to be selected. Fresh asparagus, like the robin’s song, heralds the coming of spring. In late March or early April, gardeners from Tidewater Virginia and afar will witness the emergence of tiny green shoots, which soon will develop into 6-8” spears, perfect for harvest.
Asparagus (asparagus officinalis) is an herbaceous perennial plant and member of the lily family. The English name is derived from the Greek word asparagos, which means “sprout” or “shoot.” Growing wild along the banks of the Nile, asparagus originated in the Mediterranean over 2,000 years ago. It was prized by the Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans.
Roman Emperors employed “asparagus fleets” to search the Mediterranean lands and gather wild asparagus. The first to preserve asparagus by freezing, the Romans sent fast chariots and runners from the Tiber River area to the snowline of the Alps, where it was stored until the “Feast of Epicurus.”
The first instructions for growing asparagus were given by Cato the Elder (234-149 B.C.) in his document On Agriculture (De Agri Cultura). Further, the Elder, Pliny documented the cultivation of asparagus, “ Nature has made the asparagus wild, so that any one may gather it as found. But behold, the highly-manured asparagus that may be seen at Ravenna weighing three pounds”…hence, an example of ancient fertilization.
Asparagus grew to be the vegetable of choice in the 17th century. Its enjoyment and use throughout aristocratic circles in Western Europe can be attributed to King Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” (1638-1715) who had such an affinity for the spears, he had them cultivated nearly year-round in special green houses.
In the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson kept careful notes at Monticello on his square designated for asparagus and noted that it was served 22 times in one season. The Jeffersons enjoyed it on buttered toast.
Patience reaps rewards, especially when a fresh crop of asparagus is your goal. With careful planning and preparation, an asparagus bed will thrive for 15 years or more. To plant a bed at your fingertips, remembering these three “Ps” will bring spears to your table for years.
Choose site carefully. Select a sunny site with well-drained deep sandy loam soil. Avoid windy sites and rocky soils. For a quicker harvest, order 1-year crowns (the stem and root system of a young asparagus plant) from a reputable garden center or mail order company rather than planting from seed. See suggestions below for varieties.*
Prepare soil. Asparagus thrives in soils higher in salinity. Soil PH should be 6.5-7.0.
In the fall or winter before planting, remove perennial weeds using herbicides such as “Roundup.” Mulch the bed well in the fall with a compost/manure combination. Setting out straw in the summer will help keep the weeds down. Avoid overcrowding. The tall ferns of asparagus form a canopy, which can shade other plants, so allow space for branching foliage when considering other plants nearby.
Set crowns out in March or April. Dig a trench about 10-12“ deep and 12” X 18” wide. Leave four feet between each trench. Mix the topsoil that has been removed with organic matter and make a four-inch mound at the base. Plant the crowns (make sure they are plump and healthy, not rotted or dried out) on top and spread out the spaghetti-like roots. Space plants about 15” apart and cover with two inches of soil. Fertilize with a high phosphate starter fertilizer or abundant compost. Gradually fill in the trench as the stems begin to grow. Water if rain showers are lacking. When fully established, a crown will yield about ½ pound of spears.
Harvest lightly at first. During the second season after crowns have been planted, you can harvest spears for a limited time - about three to four weeks. This will allow food stores to build in root system for future seasons. People harvest spears a couple of ways: Either cut them just below the soil surface when they are six to eight inches tall or snap close to the soil line (using garden tool or hands). Once the spears are fully established by the fourth season, you may harvest them fully (8-10 weeks).
• Mulch with compost/manure combination in the spring after harvest is over and again in the fall.
• Use pesticides to control asparagus beetles or cutworms.
• Cut or mow asparagus in the fall or winter to rid of any
beetles that may be living on plants.
• Weed the bed in the early spring before shoots emerge.
Preparing and Cooking
Once your bed is established you’ll have asparagus as much as twice a day for eight to ten weeks. In the kitchen, asparagus has versatility. Try grilling or roasting it for a more intense sweetness or steam it for a crunchy, sweet flavor. You can also try the sauté or stir-fry method (preferred in Asian cultures), a quick way to cook thinner stalks. Never overcook asparagus, unless you prefer a mushy texture. Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus often used the phrase “ Let it be done quicker than you can cook asparagus.”
If you’re aiming for a gourmet look and taste, you might try purple asparagus or white asparagus. Purple asparagus (Purple Passion variety), originally developed in Italy, is 20% higher in sugar, with a sweeter, fruitier taste. The fiber content is less than its green counterpart. To retain its beautiful color while cooking, add vinegar or lemon juice.
White asparagus, first called “Dutch asparagus,” was known as the “New Vegetable” when it first gained popularity in European markets. Today, it is a specialty in the Netherlands, France, Belgium, and Germany, but can also be purchased in the United States. Soil is mounded around the spears as they grow, depriving them of sunlight. Without chlorophyll, the spears turn white with a hint of purple. Said to have a milder flavor, white asparagus is considered a delicacy and thus, is more expensive.
According to folklore, asparagus was used medicinally to treat toothaches and bee stings. It has even been used as a reproductive tonic! What researchers have discovered today is that the spears are power-packed with vitamins and minerals. Here are just a few of the many positive characteristics:
• Excellent source of folic acid, a B vitamin which is known to lower risk of heart disease, colon cancer, liver disease, and spina bifida
• High in Vitamin, K (promotes bone health), C (strengthens immune system), and A (for retina health)
• High in fiber
• Natural diuretic – promotes healthy kidneys
• Contains Glutathione, a “master antioxidant” which guards against certain forms of cancer, and regenerates immune cells
• High concentration of rutin, vital in ability to increase circulation to the lower limbs
• Relieves indigestion
• Low in sodium, no fat or cholesterol, low in calories
In a society loaded with chemically processed foods, it’s nice to know that you can get delicious flavor and texture, a wide variety of nutrients, and endless creations for cooking all in one vegetable. Spring is near. Now go grab a spear!