Asparagus lovers eagerly await the first crop of delicious, tender spears each spring. Freshly-picked asparagus has the best flavor and once you learn how to grow your own asparagus, only the tastiest asparagus will be served on your table.
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An asparagus patch is typically started with crowns purchased from a garden center or seed catalog. A crown is the root system of a year-old asparagus plant grown from seed. Asparagus can be grown from seed, but few places sell asparagus seed and it will take an additional year before asparagus grown from seed can be harvested. It's a lot easier and less time-consuming to purchase crowns that a nursery has grown from seed for you.
Choose a sunny spot for your asparagus patch. Asparagus is a long-lived plant that does not transplant well, so grow your asparagus in a spot where it can remain undisturbed. The soil should have good drainage and be free of stones and tree roots that may cause the spears to grow crooked. Remove all weeds from the plot before planting, and provide a layer of mulch three to four inches thick once the asparagus begins to grow to help keep down weeds. It is not advisable to use salt to kill weeds in an asparagus patch.
There is conflicting information on how asparagus crowns should be planted. Traditionally it was recommended to dig an 8-inch deep trench for the crowns, then carefully spread out the roots within the trench, refilling it a bit at a time the first season as the plants grow.
However, recent comparison studies have shown that it isn't necessary to gradually fill the trench or spread out the roots. Additionally, the deeper asparagus crowns are planted, the more the yield will be reduced.
To plant your asparagus crowns in the spring, start by digging a trench that is 5-6 inches deep. For every 50 feet of row, add a pound of 0-46-0 triple superphosphate fertilizer or two pounds of 0-20-0 superphosphate fertilizer to the trench.
Next, toss the crowns into the trench, right on top of the fertilizer. The plants will grow well whether or not the roots are spread out. Place the crowns 18 inches apart, with five feet between rows. This will provide good air circulation for the plants and help prevent fungal diseases.
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Finally, backfill the trench to the original soil level, being careful to not compact the soil over the crowns. If you have poorly draining or clay soil, it would be better to plant your asparagus in a raised bed. You can learn how to create a raised bed here: http://freeplants.com/preparing-raised-planting-beds.htm
The asparagus spears cannot be harvested the same year the crowns were planted. The plants need this time to build their energy so they can produce well. The following year you may harvest a small crop over a three-week period, and over a 4-6 week period the year after that. It is the third year after planting when you can continue to harvest for the full 6-8 week season. Stop harvesting when new spears become less than a half inch in diameter, usually by the first of July.
How to harvest asparagus is just as controversial as how to grow it. Some folks prefer to use a knife to cut the spears an inch or two below ground level. Others prefer to harvest asparagus by hand, grasping the individual spears near the ground and gently running the fingers up the spear and bending it slightly until it snaps off where the spear begins to be tender. No matter which method you choose, it is best to harvest asparagus in the morning when the spears are the most juicy and will stay fresh the longest.
Once harvesting is done, allow the plants to grow and keep their fern-like foliage through fall and winter. The foliage will catch snow that will provide moisture and insulation for the roots. Cut or mow the foliage in early spring before new growth begins to emerge.
Asparagus plants are either male or female. Wild and non-hybrid asparagus will be fairly equally divided amongst both male and female plants. The female plants produce seeds, a process that takes a lot of energy for the plant. As a result, female plants produce fewer spears and have a shorter lifespan. The new, all-male hybrids grow a larger number of spears and begin producing earlier in the spring.
White asparagus is considered to be a delicacy and can be grown in your own asparagus patch. If you know how to grow ordinary asparagus, you can impress your guests even more by serving your own homegrown white asparagus. To grow white asparagus, simply mound about six inches of soil on top of established plants so the stalks will be growing underground. When the tips of the spears begin peeking through the soil surface, it is time to harvest. In this case, it is preferable to use a knife to cut the spears below the soil.
Wild asparagus grows across Europe, Asia and parts of northwest Africa. In fact, asparagus will grow pretty much all over the world. The Roman word for asparagus was asparag, a Persian word that meant shoot. Romans introduced asparag to England, where it was called sparrow grass. During the 19th century when everything French became fashionable in English high society, the name was changed to asparagus to make it sound more French, and calling it sparrow grass became uncouth.
Call it asparagus or call it sparrow grass. Either way, it's delicious!