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This Fall, Plant the Lazy Gardener's Vegetable: Asparagus

Asparagus Early Spring 2022
First food of the year.

By Lisa Brunette

What if I told you that you could plant a root in the ground, kind of ignore it, and get tasty spears of green goodness from it for years afterward? Well, I'm telling you! Asparagus is a perennial vegetable, which means it comes back every year on its own. Once established, an asparagus bed will send up fresh, nutrient-packed shoots with very little work on your part. It's an ideal situation for the lazy gardener.

Since I've been through this asparagus process twice now, I'll share a few tips so you can learn from my mistakes - as well as my few swell moves.

Think, Plan, Order

First, think about where you'd like to locate your asparagus bed. Give it a good think, too, as you're going to live with this decision for quite some time since the plants are perennials that will provide you with spears - for as many as 30 years! You might want to stake out a section for the bed ahead of time and measure off space between the rows and space between the crowns. I didn't do this, but I also started with a 1/4-acre stretch of grass that was pretty much a blank slate. If I had it to do over again, I'd probably locate the asparagus bed somewhere else; where it is now, it's kind of stuck in the middle of the annual beds. The recommendation is for 5 feet (1.5 m) between rows and the crowns 12 inches (30 cm) apart. Both our rows and crowns are closer together than this, however, and they grow just fine.

Next, find a reputable source for asparagus crowns and select a variety that's well-suited to your plant hardiness zone (map here) and climate. Note "crowns" is what the plant bud and its long, Cthulu-like roots are called before the spears grow; you plant the crowns in the ground and wait for that to happen. I ordered crowns from Stark Bros., which is located right here in the great state of Missouri but is not just for those of us in the Show-Me State; Stark is the oldest continuously operating nursery in the US. If you're not sure which variety is best, you can always call and ask. If you'd rather purchase them in person, I recommend a local independent nursery rather than a big box chain store, both for the superior quality and customer service.

I ordered a perennial vegetable assortment that included rhubarb and horseradish along with asparagus in the 'Purple Passion' and 'Jersey Knight Giant' varieties, but the 'Jersey Knight Giant' has provided better yields than the purple.

Asparagus Tags
I like to keep a garden scrapbook containing all of the original plant tags for reference.

Crowns in the Ground

Your asparagus crowns will arrive bare-root, usually in a mesh bag with each crown individually wrapped. I planted the first set of crowns in June, which wasn't the best time, but I was used to thinking of June as "spring" from gardening in the Pacific Northwest. Experts recommend planting perennials in spring or fall, but I've had the best luck in fall, so I'd recommend that.

I'm telling you about asparagus now, in fact, so you can plan to get them in the ground this autumn.

Planting asparagus does take a bit of finagling! You basically dig a hole, furrow, or trench, whatever you want to call it, and then create mounds that you set the asparagus crowns onto, spreading their roots out over the mound and over the surface of the trench. Fill the trench with loose, well-draining soil, covering the roots but not compacting the soil. Water liberally... and then wait. It can take up to three years for the spears to grow thick enough for edibility. The first year or two, they'll be tender and slender, and you should just leave them alone until winter, which I'll talk about in a bit.

Check out my first planting in June of 2019 below. The mistake I made here was not filling in the trench with soil and compost once I'd planted the crowns on the mound. Later, these were filled in with mulch and decaying garden detritus, so no harm done. But I also apparently thought animals would eat the crowns? Or I read that somewhere? I don't remember, but why else did I cover each trench with mesh, securing it with bricks? Weird...

Asparagus Planting June 8 2019
My first asparagus planting, which was far from perfect.

No matter my noobie slip-ups; they're growing like gangbusters now. I added another set - more 'Jersey Knight Giant' plus a set of 'Mary Washington' - in May 2020, and they're on their way to greatness as well... But I did flub it at first with the second set, too! I got it into my head to try some 'permaculture' thing (not really a thing - I made this up) by planting the asparagus on the edge of the rain garden, where I thought they might like the moisture. But during heavy storms, the rain garden filled with water back then, before the rain-loving natives grew in, and that washed the soil away from the crowns. Big disaster. So I moved them over to the already-established bed, where they're much happier.

Asparagus Growing
Such a thrilling sight in spring!

How Many Is Too Many Asparagus Plants?

I'm tempted to echo this infectious video meme about cats and say, "There's no such number," but maybe there is. Anthony and I both love asparagus, and we eats it all (sic) when it comes up, never having enough to preserve for later. Each of the sets above contained 10 plants, so 20 Jersey Knight, 10 Mary Washington, and 10 Purple Passion for a total of 40 plants. A typical Stark Bros. collection contains 50 plants, so maybe that's ideal. Some experts quote 25 plants per person, so maybe we're due another set. I've thought about adding more, but you know, space issues. Five years ago, when I stared out at that vast, blank slope of grass, I never thought I'd say that, but here we are.

The other thing about growing asparagus in the home garden is that the asparagus comes up when it wants to, and that's usually not all at once. So you might not get that heaping bundle like when you buy it at the store. The upside is: asparagus for weeks and weeks! It's delicious just straight out of the ground; break a spear off where it snaps, and munch away. The stuff from the store is no contest.

Asparagus Meal

Enjoy It for the 'Spring'

Asparagus is the first spring food for a lot of us, along with early baby greens. They provide the energy of new growth and renewal, literally giving you the nutrients needed to stretch upward, toward the sun, after a winter spent turned inward. The name is derived from the Greek word "asparagos," which means "to spring up."

I'm showing early signs of cataracts, which run in my family. So it pleases me to know that asparagus is a great source of vitamin A, which helps prevent those and other eye diseases. It also contains some protein, as well as potassium and vitamins C, E, and K. It's rich in antioxidants, helps regulate cholesterol, and provides one third of the folic acid an average person needs each day.

We eat them in salads with greens and in stir-fries, but my favorite way to eat asparagus is in an omelet, with fresh herbs.

Asparagus Omelet
One of my typical omelets... er, egg scrambles. I never can get them to flip correctly.

Put 'Em to Bed

There's really not much care involved with this giving and forgiving perennial. Once the weather's too hot for them, the spears will bolt, sending up wispy fronds, the female plants growing red berries. In fall, the fronds turn yellow, providing beautiful color to the changing landscape. You might remember Anthony's gorgeous door wreath, which incorporated plenty of dried asparagus into the design. Asparagus fronds are a favorite with interior designers; there's even one featured prominently in this summer's print issue of Better Homes & Gardens.

In winter, once the fronds have turned completely brown, snip them off at soil level. Dress the asparagus bed in an inch (2.5 cm) of compost and then cover with 3 inches (7.5 cm) of mulch (we use wood chips), which will protect the crowns to overwinter. In spring, the spears will emerge through the mulch, no problem.

...And that's it! I encourage you to embrace this perfect perennial food plant so that you can experience the awesomeness of asparagus all for yourself. Happy homesteading!