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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. margaret says:

    Adrienne,
    Welcome, and glad to help. Asparagus is worth waiting for. I have been harvesting for a week now already, more than I can eat each day, and it is wonderful. Each year with just some weeding, watering in dry spells and feeding once a year in early spring, I get this great reward.
    You will, too.
    Margaret

  2. Adrienne says:

    I’m just starting a vegetable garden this year and was so excited to find your blog today. I live in a Zone 3 climate and have wanted to grow asparagus desperately, but had not found info on why you don’t harvest the first two years, thanks for being so informative!

  3. Adam says:

    Margaret – Read about your blog in the NY Times…content is great and I’ve really enjoyed the links!

    As per the asparagus, I live in Florida Zone 8/9 and want to plant a heap of asparagus. I wondered if you thought any particular variety would do well – Purple, Green, Hybrid?

  4. margaret says:

    Welcome, Adam. I wish I had better news, but as far as I know asparagus requires more dormancy than you can offer it to perform well, and love a long, productive life. Generally it’s a Zone 4-8 crop, and in the hotter, more humid end of Zone 8 it limps along. There are some so-called West Coast varieties (I think ‘Atlas’ and ‘UC157’ are two) that tolerate more heat, but they hate humidity, so doubtful they will be suitable. Even the University of Florida, which conducted tests of all the varieties years ago trying to figure this out, couldn’t really endorse it as a viable crop from what I understand. You can look at their results on this page. Remember, now, I cannot grow a coconut or an avocado, so you can’t have ALL the good things!

  5. Amy says:

    Hello, This is a great site, I am glad I found it. I am a newbie to all things green, including my thumb. I just started the Square Foot gardening method this year. I believe in most cases,crowding my crops for most are vine crops, and I do not have a lot of Trellis Space. I hope 3 Zuchinni per sq foot will make it. This leads me to the Asparagus I bought. They were on sale, crowns, at Lowes for fifty cents. I um, bought 28 of them hehe.
    They are of the Mary Washington variety, and they say space 4″ apart for the 6 roots per package. I am most confused about Asparagus. Most things I read state 12-18″ apart. This of course leaves a much bigger amount of wood, space and soil of which to buy. Your pictures, versus what I see on the net otherwise confuse me as well, I see your crowns coming up one per several inches, most of what I see on the net are ‘ferns’. Thus needing much space sounds about right in that case.
    Erm, where is the plant in the fern haha.
    Regardless, any suggestions on planting? Perhaps the packages I bought are less than most crown roots thus the statement of over a foot in spacing.

    So my conern is about space and rows.
    My assumption was they grew bigger like Rhubarb and spread out.
    I live in Michigan, and I don’t have alloted for Asparagus the sunniest part of my land, but its on the North side and should get at least six hours from sunrise.

  6. margaret says:

    Welcome, Amy. I am sticking to my instructions above about asparagus–and what you read about spacing elsewhere apparently. Not 4″ apart…definitely far too close.
    The reason the photos show spears close together is because the roots spread underground the last few years and a growing crown fills in a large space in time, making spears over the whole area you give it if you follow the spacing above. I planted them 18 inches apart in the row, promise. It gave them room to mature and flourish.
    I think your zucchinis will be crowded if you put 3 in a square foot, too. I know Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot method but I don’t think he squashes 3 squashes into a foot. ;-)
    Asparagus will do best in full sun, including the strong midday kind, so do think about where it is located since it’s permanent and something you will want to be able to count on for many, many years.

  7. Amy says:

    Thanks for the information Margaret!
    I have decided two things, to stop being greedy with my ‘squashed’ space and give them room (Also so Mel doesn’t call me a heretic SFGardener), and that I am going to take back my bulk Lowes Mary Washington Asparagus.
    After a lot of reading, growing MW would be a waste of time, space, and so last year.
    I was worried about GMO, but seems the Jersey Giant and or Knight are not genetically altered.
    I ask you lastly, if you can suggested some well respected sites to buy crowns from.
    I know I am running late, but I am determined to get this year behind me to be on my way to Asparagus feasting and fun in a few years.
    From what I see, most places are sold out :/

    It’s good to know this crop will be hardy enough to grow without the special need of an above ground thus saving time/money.

    In closing here is a cool site I thought you might enjoy. Seems they have some even BETTER hybrids on the way than the Jersey variety (Seems you prefer the Giant?)

    Amy

  8. margaret says:

    @Amy: Try Miller’s up in the Finger Lakes of New York State. As for what variety, I’d get half of the purple and half of one of the Jersey types. We’ll await your progress report!

  9. Jenny says:

    Hi Margaret:

    Thank you for this fabulous site, it is such a pleasure to read. I have a question for you: I started Asparagus from seed last year and have tiny little babies popping out this year. They are definitely not planted in the trenches like you mentioned. From what it sounds like, I have another three or four years before I can start to cut. My question is, when do you think I should transplant them into trenches?

    Thanks again!

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Jenny. I have never started asparagus from seed, but the U of Illinois Extension site (which I like very much) says you did it just right, and to dig them after a year in the ground, the second spring. Here are the details (mid-way down the page in the Q&A). Do come visit again soon.

  10. Sharon says:

    How do i know what zone I’m in? I am about 90 miles SW of Chicago. I would like to start growing asparagus this year if possible. Our last frost usually occurs before May 15th. Thanks for your help
    Sharon

  11. Vince says:

    Why did my asparagus die? I planted roots 2 years ago and last year they all came up. I didn’t cut any. This was cold, but not much snow. This spring, only 4 of my 8-10 roots sprouted foliage. It looks like the rest may have rotted? Is my ground too wet? Why did they do OK last year, but not this one? I’m bummed of all the work I put in to have them die on me. :( Should I try again with the Jersey variety? These were M. Wash. I live in N. Virginia. thanx

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Vince. Sorry to hear the news. Key to success: well-drained soil (even sandy is good), and keeping the bed weed-free (especially for new plantings). Asparagus can rot in wet conditions (most plants can) and you ask if your ground is too wet…so I am thinking you worry about poor drainage? Definitely plan to improve the soil, and yes, I’d try the appropriate all-male strain next. See you soon again, I hope.

  12. Lori says:

    I live in Upsate New York, outside of Oneonta. Can you plant asparagus in the fall or late summer? We bought some in the spring and never planted it. Is it still good? Thanks for your help.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Lori. I would not do so, no. If the roots were stil good, you’d have seen a little sprouting of ultra-skinny “asparagus” and then those would have stretched into very delicate ferns (assuming they were potted up since their arrival), in which case I’d say what the heck, plant them in the ground. But I doubt they are OK otherwise, and even that’s not their favorite treatment. Prepare the bed now, and then order again for early spring planting. See you soon, I hope.

  13. Lynn says:

    Hello,
    I really enjoy reading your newsletter. I am starting a new bed. Is there anything that can be planting with asparagus to get more use from the space and add interest?
    Thanks

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Lynn. Asparagus wants to be kept well-weeded and have its own space, so don’t overplant it, no. I Know it’s a big space hog, but will repay you for decades once it’s well-established. Hope to see you soon.

  14. erin says:

    I just made the mistake of cutting off all the ferns from my 2 year old asparagus! It’s late July in Brooklyn, NY. Have I ruined them for good? Next steps?

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Erin. This is not ideal, and may set back next year’s harvest, but I wouldn’t give up. They did have some growing time. They may start to regrow so just let them — water them and so on, and no more cutting till after hard frost.

  15. kim jessen says:

    Hi Margaret,
    What about growing asparagus as container plants? I have had mine in pots since I purchased them early last spring, and have repotted them as their roots have grown out the bottom of the smaller pots. They are growing large and ferny. Do you think I will be able to harvest asparagus from these plants in two years or so? I live in zone 6.

    Kim

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Kim. I don’t think they will like living “above ground” when winter freezes the pots solid. Asparagus is all about the roots having a chance to really develop, so I suggest getting them into the ground — at least “plunge” the pots for winter, at soil level or just below, then when the roots are dormant in early spring, unpot them and plant them permanently.

  16. andyz says:

    Grew asparagus in Connecticut for many years. Yes you plant at least 18″ apart and 18″deep and don’t start harvesting until 3rd year, if you want the bed to produce for 25-30 years. If you start harvesting right away, the bed will last about 5 years. Depends on what you want. The rich soil that asparagus likes also encourages weeds, so be prepared to do a lot of work to be rewarded with the food of the gods! If you want the best asparagus you’ll ever eat, you’ve got to put. In the work and patience! A.Z.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, AndyZ. Yes, I remember waiting three years before eating any, all those years ago. Good point! Thank you, and see you soon again.

  17. Larissa says:

    Hi Margaret, I’m a new transplant to the country from the city (Brooklyn to upstate NY). The former owners of our new house kept a nice garden, with what looked (last November, when we moved in) like a big asparagus bed. We, and various guests, were positive it was asparagus!

    But being busy with the move, I didn’t cut back the dried stalks until March. Now I’m watching the bed like a hawk… and don’t see anything coming up. It’s April 17– wouldn’t spears be up by now if they were coming? What could have happened?

    And love your site, too. Successfully grew tomatoes from seed for the first time last year, thanks to you !

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Larissa. I assume is looked like thin, tall stems with tons of ferny, very fine “foliage” on them last fall, and eventually turned yellow then brown as it died back? Adnthere might have been some red “berries,” too, though not always. I have no spears here yet poking through, but expect them any day now…so don’t give up hope! It has been cold with lots of frost in the ground until last week, really.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Susan. Typically “crowns” are only sold dormant in early spring, and planted then, but if you have some that are potted up and already growing, then get them in the ground asap.

  18. Maureen says:

    Hi There!

    I’m still new to gardening and your site has been such a help!! I have a question about asparagus. I planted last year, and all went according to plan. But now what? How do I care for the beds this year? I’m kind of afraid to touch them, scared I’ll disturbed the crowns.

    Thanks for all your great advice!!

    Maureen

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Maureen. Good for you, asparagus-to-be is in the ground. What I do each late winter/early spring is to cut back the faded foliage to the ground, then and most of all make sure there are no weeds (which you have to keep up with all season long before any establish). Then topdress them with lots of good compost (well-rotted manure would be great if you have a source). You can feed with an all-natural organic fertilizer if you like; I do every few years, relying mostly on the compost.

  19. Porgie says:

    Hey Margaret Just planted some Purple asparagus today in a large Plastic beer barrel ive had good success with my Jersey Nights I know beautiful rich soil when i see IT , I spend more time at my grow boxes in the winter months , than in summer,Keeping great soil for the next year…..My Question is I live In utah we do get into the single digits ,,during winter this Pot is above ground It is a large pot ,,but if it freezes Will I loose My Plants cuz i would dare guess these pots above ground would freeze solid ???? Maybe cover this Pot with lots of straw during winter ??? who knows let me know your thoughts

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Porgie. You are correct, above-ground pots have much less insulation for roots than when plants are tucked into the ground…so it’s like gardening in a zone or two colder. Plus, asparagus develop massive root systems, which probably won’t like being confined. So yes, you could insulate with bales of straw….but the root restriction might eventually catch up unless those barrels are gigantic! :)

  20. Mary Beheler says:

    I planted 3 Jersey Giant crowns in a 4’x4′ Square Foot Gardening box last spring. They came up and produced very well this spring. I treated myself to about a half dozen spears and let the rest grow.
    The flowers have only stamens, not pistils, so all 3 are indeed male. I am wondering exactly what “spread underground by roots” means. Like strawberry runners, only underground? Or does the circumference of the crown just increase a little each year? Will they eventually fill the 4×4 box? With more crowns, or just 3 huge crowns? Or will I need to buy more plants to fill in the space?
    I’ve put up with pulling tiny asparagus plants from the seeds of female asparagus at 2 past residences. I sure hope these multiply, but not so prolifically!
    A factoid I learned on the Internet: Asparagus begins to sprout when the soil temperature hits 50 degrees.
    This article shows how to tell the difference between male & female flowers, and gives some details on what is meant by super male and all male varieties. http://aesop.rutgers.edu/~asparagus/program/male.html

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Mary. Generally you plant the crowns about one and a half feet apart within the row, and the rows 4 or 5 feet apart, I think (because when the plant is “in fern’ after it finishes producing spears, it is quite space-hogging). So in your 4×4 bed what can you fit? I’d say probably 4 crowns. They are not invasive or runners like raspberries or anything…well-behaved. but to produce lots of spears they need room to stretch their legs a bit. :)

  21. Kim says:

    Hi Margaret, excellent information. I am a new gardener and started a blog to document all of my gardening adventures. I found your page, because I just pulled up all my hedges on side of my house and have ordered 75 Asparagus crowns that are 3 yrs old. As per the supplier, my zone 9 should be good, if we harvest twice a year instead of only once. She suggested we harvest in February and October. I will be documenting our experience on our blog http://www.sfggardens.com As of today, 10/13/12 we are still preparing our soil and should have them delivered and in the ground on Monday. Thanks for such an informative blog. Hopefully the Asparagus Crowns will grow in Zone 9, Central Florida. Check out our blog to see if they did LOL

  22. nina benamoz says:

    I am growing some Jersey asparagus they have miniture bells on the spears What is it?

    Never saw a picture of growing asparagus, Would like to see one

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Nina. If you email me a snapshot maybe I can tell you. If you do Google IMAGES search for the words growing asparagus you will see how it looks in the field/garden.

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