Growing asparagus at home
Asparagus tends to be more expensive than other vegetables, so growing it in your home garden is a great alternative to buying it at the grocery store. It will be more tender and flavorful when going straight from your garden to your dinner table, as well.
Asparagus originated in the Mediterranean regions of Europe, but various varieties have made it a versatile crop for almost all areas of the United States. It grows successfully in places with such diverse climates as California, Minnesota, New York State, and New Jersey. The only places where asparagus is difficult to grow are those with a high water table, since the roots should not stand for long in water.
When you grow asparagus at home, choose a location carefully since asparagus is a perennial plant. Pick a spot where its shadow will not hinder the growth of other plants. Soil should have good drainage.
If you live in an area with clay or nutrient-poor soil, or if you do not want to disturb the soil, lasagna gardening, invented in Australia and further developed in California to conserve water, can be a good way to go.
Start with a wooden frame to hold in soil that you are going to build up. The frame should be made of four boards nailed together into a box shape about the size of a king-sized bed. If you can get hold of the platform for a king-sized bed, simply move it out to your garden and you are ready to begin. Spread a layer of newspapers about 2 inches thick along the ground inside your box. This will help hold in water. Next, lay down a layer of alfalfa hay. Bales of hay come already sliced, so simply remove the slices and place them side-by-side as if paving a patio with bricks. Next, add a layer of mature compost to the top of your box.
When it is mature, compost has a pH between 6 and 8, which is good for growing asparagus. Asparagus needs phosphorus, so make your compost from kitchen waste and manure. Grass cuttings tend to be poor in phosphorus and can contain grass seeds. Using worms for composting can help the phosphorus level, but add them only after your compost has cooled to room temperature.
There are two basic ways of planting asparagus. One way is to plant crowns, or dormant roots, so that you will have edible shoots by the third year. The other way, growing from seeds requires even more patience. Expect a year for your roots to grow.
Check with your local nursery as to which varieties are best-suited to your locale and preferences. Many breeds are monoecious, or have one gender per plant. All male plants are usually preferred for their greater number of spears than the female. Female plants are often discarded by gardeners who do not want volunteer asparagus plants growing from the plants’ berries. Some varieties with only male plants are prized for their ability to withstand fungus. Dioecious plants, those with both male and female gender on the same plant, are also available. Some varieties hardy enough for cold climates include the Jersey series from Rutgers. Some varieties include Jersey King, Jersey Prince, Jersey Knight, Jersey Jewel, Jersey General, and Jersey Titan. The most common varieties grown in California’s Imperial Valley, where temperatures soar over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, include de Paoli and UC157. Purple varieties are available to look cool on your table.
To plant asparagus crowns, in the spring, first dig a depression the length of your garden bed, 12 inches deep and 12 to 18 inches wide. Place each crown into the soil about 15 to 18 inches apart, with the mass in the center of the crown slightly higher than the individual roots. Add a high phosphorus fertilizer. (Three numbers are usually seen on packages of fertilizer. The second number listed is phosphorus. Try to find one with at least 20 percent listed as the middle number. Phorphorus, or phosphate, is used in general to grow strong roots, which is what you need to do). Place about 2 inches of soil over each crown. Every 2 weeks continue to place 2 inches of soil over the crowns until the trench is completely filled in.
Water to keep the soil moist but not in puddles.
For the truly intrepid gardener, asparagus seeds are available. Spring is the best time to plant, when the soil is warm enough for germination. Soak your seeds in a mixture of water and compost for 2 hours before planting. Plant them 15 to 18 inches apart and cover with 2 inches of soil.
Legumes, such as sweet peas or snow peas, make good companion plants for asparagus. Legumes fix nitrogen from the air into the soil, allowing the plant to make proteins.
Once asparagus is established in your garden it will continue to produce for ten to twenty years as long as it has the nutrients it needs. Once your plants have matured, spread a balanced fertilizer with a ratio 10-10-10 or 15-15-15 every spring to allow growth. Happy gardening!