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growing, cooking & stashing asparagus: 12 don’ts

Mrs GM Van Wagnener AsparagusIT’S A DEFINING MOMENT: the first asparagus spear of a new garden year. To make asparagus season all the more productive and delicious, from garden to table to freezer, I gathered my list of a dozen no-no’s to avoid with this long-lived but short-season crop. It’s my contribution to the kickoff of Spring Fling, a cross-blog recipe and tip swap with some foodie friends that will happen twice-monthly into June:

Planting

1. Don’t skip the part about digging the trench, which one Cornell University bulletin describes as a W-furrow (illustrated below). Some people simply dig an 18-inch-wide by 12-inch-deep trench and spread the roots out flat in the bottom. In a W-furrow, a ridge of soil hoed into place down the middle (in this case of a shallower trench, just 6-8 inches deep) supports the spider-like roots.

2. Don’t bury the crowns all at once, but rather fill the trench in gradually as the topgrowth develops through the first season.

3. Don’t forget to water as the crowns make their way to establishing a deep root system. Details on planting and care are here.

Picking

4. Don’t pick too soon from a new planting. Some sources say you can pick a little starting one year after planting; I’d wait until the season after, when the crowns have been in the ground two years.

6. Don’t snap off spears above-ground; cut at the soil surface or better yet, just below. Use an asparagus knife–which you might think is a dandelion weeder but isn’t, as Red Pig Garden Tools’ Bob Denman, an Oregon-based blacksmith and purveyor of garden tools, explains (that’s his handmade beauty, above).

7. Don’t pick too long in any single season. About two weeks is all you get if you pick the year after planting if you dare pick that soon at all; perhaps a monthlong harvest at two years in the ground; six to eight weeks a year in a third-year and beyond planting—but all of those are very rough estimates. Because weather can vary so in spring, the harvest may be condensed into a shorter span, or stretched a bit. “Stop the harvest when the diameter of 3/4 of the spears becomes small (less then 3/8 inch),” says Ohio State University extension.

Aftercare

8. Don’t force the asparagus bed to compete with weeds. Treat it as you would any perennial bed; make a pass through regularly to clean up weeds, but don’t cultivate harshly or deeply.

9. Don’t cut back the ferny foliage that develops once you stop harvesting—at least not until it’s time for the plant to go dormant, or even the following late winter or early spring. Let the greenery do its photosynthesizing job all season long.

Cooking and Preserving

10. Don’t boil your asparagus, please, whether store-bought or homegrown. Ugh. Preheat the oven to 400, and roast washed, trimmed spears that have been tossed in olive oil (perhaps with lemon juice or balsamic vinegar added), salt and pepper. Ten minutes should do it; grilling is also great. For an Asian twist, use toasted sesame oil as part of the prep. Don’t want any oil? Steam the spears lightly.

WPA canning asparagus 194310. Don’t can your asparagus harvest; what a sorry substitute hot-packed asparagus, which turns an olivey color and takes on a slippery texture, is over fresh. Freeze it instead by simply sorting for size (big ones take longer to blanch than small), then lightly steaming or blanching spears before chilling them fast in ice water, drying, and packing in freezer bags with the air squeezed out. Blanching may take 1-3 minutes or thereabouts. Spears can be frozen whole or cut into pieces (the latter are great for future stir-fries, frittatas, and such).

11. Don’t buy imported asparagus when there is local or at least domestic available. In fact, how about not buying asparagus out of season at all? Read about the devastating impact America and Britain’s hunger for spears year-round is having on the water supply in Peru, among other negative impacts, such as the decline in U.S. production from competition, and resulting farm subsidies. It all started in 1990 as a way to shift agriculture in the Andes region away from drug production (Coca farming) to something else…but while asparagus is in season here, why not stock up?

Many people would have put this one on the top of the list:

12. Don’t grow the old-fashioned varieties like ‘Martha Washington’ that include both male and female plants. The newer “Jersey hybrids” are all-male strains, and male plants live longer, are more prolific (because they don’t waste energy making red berries like the ones in the 1890 print up top, and seeds, the way females do). Hybrids also have many forms of disease-resistance bred in, besides 20 or even 30 percent greater yields. Many people have the older varieties in their yards, producing mightily after a decade or even two. But if you’re planning a new planting, think male.

The Recipes from My Friends

 

How to Participate in Spring Fling

HAVE A TIP OR RECIPE to share about asparagus, or one of the other spring farm- or garden-to-table crops on our Spring Fling lineup? Put it in the comments on my blog, and copy it onto the comments on all the participating blogs (listed above) so that the maximum number of people enjoy your idea. Links back to your own blog, or sites you love, are fine; they can be to older posts from your archives, if you’re not posting something new. The more the better! The schedule of weekly themes:

  • Wednesday, April 20: Asparagus
  • Wednesday, May 4: Rhubarb
  • Wednesday, May 18: Artichokes
  • Wednesday, June 1: Strawberries
  • Wednesday, June 15: Peas

(Asparagus illustration, top, circa 1890, by Mrs. G.M. Van Wagnener, from the Library of Congress archives. WPA-era photo, circa 1943, from Jeffersontown, Kentucky, at the Jefferson County Community cannery, where women paid 3 cents each for cans and 2 cents per can for use of the pressure cooker to can asparagus.)

  1. I am so far out from harvesting asparagus. Sigh. This year, I plant to remove grass/weeds/wildflowers from a space and make a nice bed so I can plant some NEXT year. Then, I see I have to wait. But, thank you for all the info in one place. Here, it is common to plant your asparagus in the alley. The ferny foliage looks nice out there in the summer.

  2. martha at Overlake Farm says:

    Don’t neglect sorrel…it’s such an early riser! I made my first batch of sorrel soup last weekend, expecting to serve it chilled (my favorite springy thing to do) but it was too cold outside for such an aspiration. But no harm: the soup is good hot, as well. I used Julia’s recipe, an adaptation of her water-cress soup recipe.

  3. Terri says:

    Thank you, thank you! I bought a house last summer and the back yard has an established asparagus bed… I’ve never grown asparagus before, so I really appreciate the timely tips! Can’t wait to see them poking through the compost I bedded them down with last fall. :)

  4. Frank Hyman says:

    Hey, good advice on asparagus. I can add a few things:

    * Instead of an asparagus cutter, I just use a rusty kitchen knife that I bought at a yard sale for a quarter. I keep it stuck in the ground of the asparagus bed, so that it’s right there whenever I walk by the bed and see a few spears at optimal size. That way I don’t have to go looking for a tool in order to harvest.

    * After I bring the spears indoors, I bend them so that the inedible end snaps off and I throw that into the compost. All that’s left is edible spear, so my guests don’t have to cut off or accidentally bite into something chewy.

    * I forgo the trench part of the planting. In good soil, that drains well, even our clay loam in NC, zone 7, I think they do just fine to dig a hole and set the roots in it and then backfill, same as you would do with any bare root perennial. Like many gardeners, all the work of trenching and periodic back filling put me off of fooling with starting asparagus. I finally bought some and decided to plant them same way as i would any plant and they are doing fine in year 5 (or is it 6?). I’m harvesting spears as big or bigger than my thumb right now.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if there either isn’t any scientific comparison of difference in harvest between the two ways of planting or if the difference is minimal. A number of planting “rules” are hand-me-down ideas from regions where it might have made some sense at the time, but doesn’t apply everywhere. FWIW.

    * Lastly, they are a plant that evolved in the Mediteranean, so they like a sweet soil, so don’t spare the lime. :-)

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Gaby, and thanks for being part of Spring Fling with your recipe today. I think we are off to a good start.

      Welcome, Martha. I love sorrel, good reminder. Martha Stewart used to make a spring soup of it (and another of nettles) — both so delicious!

      Welcome, Terri. Nice to inherit an asparagus bed with the new home; what a treat.

      Welcome, Frank. I love all your tips; how great to hear how you planted it there, etc. I especially like the part about your rusty knife. :)

      Hope to see you all soon again. Happy spring!

  5. Teresa says:

    Ruth Stout and Lee Reich both say that the trench digging is a myth–sounds like maybe this isn’t quite resolved? Of course I read this in their books after I spent 3 weekends digging my trenches while I had a sinus infection!! What’s the rationale behind the trenches? I simply was following the directions from Johnny’s…..

    Also, what’s your thought on ph? Do they really need alkaline soil? I figure your soil is probably acidic so I would ask. I added a bunch of lime to mine just in case.

    Can’t wait to see them poke out of the ground!!

  6. Terri says:

    I saw one!!!! After I posted earlier today, I realized I hadn’t looked in a few days, because the weather’s been foul. At least it’s dry today, so I went out and there it was!

  7. Jim Pappas says:

    Great ideas, but I want to quibble a bit with post # 12. If you’re talking about green asparagus, then by all means go with the Jersey hybrids. But make sure that you have room for the purple asparagus. It isn’t an all-male hybrid, but it has 20% more sugar than than the green types. It is wonderful just picked and eaten raw right in the garden. The green simply doesn’t hold a candle to it.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Jim. I do have some of the purple and love it. The Rutgers folks have just introduced a more productive strain of purple, NY1192, you will be glad to know (scroll down on this page to see). I have the older kind, not theirs.

      Welcome, Teri. Resist! Resist! You will earn many years of goodness for your patience now.

      See you both soon again, I hope.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Dawn. I love digging around in the archives here and there of libraries and government files. Can’t help myself. Thanks for your recipe, and for joining in.

  8. Cathy Meyer says:

    I’ve been growing asparagus for 14 years and this is the most comprehensive information I’ve seen. I had no idea there was such a thing as an asparagus knife. Thanks!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Cathy. Sounds like you have done just fine on your own. :) Glad to help add to your expertise on this great crop. Hope to see you soon again.

  9. Barbee' says:

    Margaret, I have been watching for this post in Blotanical, because I wanted to give it a high rating, but it still hasn’t appeared in the ‘A’ list (blog titles beginning with A). Maybe your ping didn’t take and needs to be done again. The last one of yours that I see in the list is the one about a giveaway. Then again, I may be overlooking it (I recently had eye surgery), but I looked more than once.

  10. Naseer says:

    Hi Margaret, thanks for the tips! Our Jersey supremes arrived this week from Johnny’s and the trenches are built. I hope the rain holds off and I can get them in the ground tomorrow. Looking foward to amazing asparagi (?) 3 years from now!

  11. Leslie Land says:

    Thanks for the great post, Margaret, and three cheers for using “don’t” as an organizing principle. There are lots of more or less right ways to do things in the garden but wrong tends to be wrong regardless. (Although the trench question does remain a somewhat vexed issue).

    Our truck garden in the Hudson Valley has asparagus all along the back, 100 running feet more or less, planted almost 20 years ago. Lots of opportunities to experiment and fodder for the – so glad you’re starting early! – recipe swap. At least in the case of asparagus, how could I resist?

    My asparagus post with links to preliminaries on storage, preparation and selection at the store, for those who must buy, is here. And a meatless recipe for Frugal Asparagus Soup ( made from the otherwise discarded tough ends) is here.

  12. elise says:

    We are about to create a new configuration to our garden, which will require setting up a raised bed over a mature asparagus patch. We are going to shift the beds 90 degrees, and the asparagus that is next to the raised beds, will now reside inside one of the new beds. Will keep you posted on the transition. We were gifted a mature patch of asparagus. Let’s hope we don’t mess it up!

  13. Judy in Kansas says:

    All great asparagus info. We inherited two old, old beds – probably 40-50 years old and they are still producing, but we started a new raised bed close to the house with seeds from the old beds. Weren’t sure it would work, but six years later we’re harvesting more from the new bed than the old.
    Because they aren’t hybrids we get all sizes of spears, from “pencil thin” to “bigger than a thumb”. To freeze them I sort them into three bunches by size, blanch the big ones first for 1 minute, add the middle ones for another minute and then the thin ones for a minute more. Semms to work well.

  14. Judy says:

    I inherited a bed of asparagus when we bought our house–the bed was about 20 years old–the owner said just mow it off in the early spring every year. We did that for a while and it seemed to produce less–so another old farmer in the area, said just burn it off, that all the farmers used to burn their fence rows off every year before everyone started using roundup. He said when they burned off the fence rows-that the asparagus always came back bigger and better. Our patch is about a 20 by 20 square. We now have been burning it off yearly, on a calm day. It thrives now. It doesn’t harm the roots–they are underground. I didn’t know about cutting them below the ground either. I haven’t been doing that–I will start!

  15. Mariah says:

    I don’t have an asparagus bed yet, but when it is in season I buy loads of it. Instead of composting the woody part of the stalk I’ve been freezing it then when I make soup or stock I just tie them in a bundle, simmer with the soup and remove when it’s done. That way I don’t waste any asparagus flavor!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Mariah. I use trimmings for stock, too — waste not, want not! :) Hope to see you again soon here.

  16. Ines says:

    Thanks for the great article, Margaret. Asparagus are my favorite vegetable, so after many years of indecision I finally started an asparagus bed with 20 crowns. The location did not allow me to plant it in rows but as a big round bed close to the fruit trees. I dug a big circular hole in the ground about 6″ deep and proceeded in the same way as if I had a trench (it looks like a kids pool!). I put the crowns in the ground the last week of March, but as of today nothing has sprouted. Is this normal? When should I expect the first spears to come up?
    The recipes all look yummy, I love asparagus soup!

  17. Margaux Drake says:

    My raw peeps are wondering: Why can’t you just freeze asparagus raw? Since I have no experience with roasting, blanching or raw freezing asparagus (see below), I thought I better ask the original Marge the Boss. They don’t call you numero UNO for nothing!
    (I planted my asparagus crowns in very obviously the WRONG spot. They don’t seem to like swamps much. Must DO-OVER!)~MtheB Jr.
    PS: I think there are two #10s above?

  18. Jeanne Daningburg says:

    Martha,
    Could you do a post on using stinging nettles as food? Soup, perhaps? I just can’t get past the stinging memories from childhood, and I have no idea when to pick, how to cook, etc.

    Thanks!

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