asparagus: an all-male cast

IT SHOULD COME AS NO SURPRISE, since it’s true so many other places still: In the asparagus rows, males are in charge. ‘Martha Washington’ and ‘Mary Washington’ were names you used to see most often in catalogs, but no more. Their weakness: The Washington strains include both male and female plants, and the males are far more productive if what you want is lots of spears. Who doesn’t?

In the mid-1980s, Rutgers University, a state institution in New Jersey, began a program to improve asparagus performance that focused on the extra productivity of the male plants. The resulting strains, most of which have the word Jersey in their names, are what you want to grow if you’re going to plant asparagus. They waste no time or energy on seed production and go right to the task of making spears. They can be harvested more often (about every two to three days in a productive, established bed) and yield about 20 to 30 percent higher than the old varieties.

But asparagus tests the gardener, asking for an excavation followed by a lot of patience. Whatever kind you’re planting, you have to dig a trench about 12 inches wide and deep (some people say 8 inches is deep enough). Since asparagus is best planted in early spring, when dormant roots are sold by mail, prepare the bed the previous fall or in earliest spring. Order roots, or crowns, by mail for the freshest possible plants; they will be either one or two years old when you get them.

To prepare the bed, first test the soil pH by following the package instructions on a home test kit, or by taking a sample, according to their directions, to a local soil lab. For asparagus, you are aiming for a pH within the neutral range, or about 6.5 to 7.0. The lab report will indicate how to amend the soil, and with what material; the typical routes are sulfur to acidify and lime to neutralize, but neither is a quick fix—or the whole answer. Adding large amounts of organic matter, preferably compost, to the soil should always be the first step; an organic soil is easier to pH-balance.

As you dig the trench, put the soil you excavate alongside the trench. Then layer the middle of the trench floor with a few inches of well-rotted manure and soil, sprinkle with rock phosphate and an all-natural organic fertilizer according to label directions, tamp the bottom, then fan the dormant roots out over the mound in the trench so they look like so many giant spiders with legs dangling.

Space the crowns about 18 inches apart within the row, and leave a few feet between parallel rows. When they are in place, backfill an inch or two of soil onto the plants and firm, then water. Once the crowns send up green shoots, shovel in another thin layer of soil (don’t cover the tips completely), and repeat this step through the summer until the asparagus trench is filled back in. Keep the area weeded and watered.

Now comes the patient part. You cannot cut any spears right away, and most people say best to wait until the third spring in the ground – a full two years after planting. Sometimes light cutting for just two weeks in the second year is suggested; follow the directions your grower encloses with your crowns. Until then, simply let the plants go through their cycle of sprouting spears that turn ferny in summer. Don’t cut off any foliage until cleanup of the bed in late winter or early spring.

The payoff is obvious, if you love asparagus. And, best of all, if kept weed-free and otherwise well-tended, a planting can last for up to 20 years. Did I mention that you can also grow the super-sweet and exceptionally pretty purple-spear varieties like ‘Purple Passion’ or ‘Sweet Purple’ at home?

  1. Tamara says:

    I just recieved some freshly dug up asparagus crowns and was hoping to plant them this weekend. Will that be ok? I have no idea what variety, just that the CSA I workshare fo got them from a friend who just dug them out of their neighbors garden. I was plannign on maling a 4×4 raised bed and planting in there. Also, the crowns came submerged in water….is that normal?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Tamara. They are usually sold dormant and “bare root” (asleep and unpotted) in very early spring, so I can’t say I’ve ever transplanted them in late summer or fall, but what do you have to lose? I suspect he/she put them in water because it’s impossible to dig up something like asparagus with a rootball of soil attached. I say try it! I suspect they will sulk next year and may need to just be allowed to grow ferns, and not be harvested.

  2. Belle Barnes says:

    Hi- I was interested in the question from Tamara because we have some misplaced asparagus growing in various flower gardens and in our main veggie garden instead of in the asparagus patch. As you know, they get HUGE, so we want to move them to their own bed! The spring, even though I’ve read and you kind of confirmed that in your reply to her, is best, is hard as I’d like it out of there beforehand, preferably this fall, so I can see what else I don’t want to disturb. In the spring the surrounding plants aren’t yet visible. Any thoughts? Would you wait till it gets a little cooler to try and is there a date that I shouldn’t attempt to move them after? Thanks. Love your info- keep it coming.

  3. karen m sloan says:

    I am planting a row of asparagus in a 4″ x 8″ raised bed. I have some room for other veggies and/or herbs and am wondering if you would have some suggestions as to compatibility.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Karen. The thing about asparagus is that they don’t like “competition,” whether from weeds or other plants, and in that space it will be tight. I don’t know how many asparagus crowns or plants you have, but you could do a double row in that space, with the crowns in 1 foot from the edge front and back and the two 8-foot rows 2 feet apart from each other, which would probably use only 10ish plants/crowns (because the spacing within the row is meant to be at least 18 inches).

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