Asparagus crop is worth the effort
Q uestion: I planted a small bed of asparagus early this year. It has some green whisks growing but nothing else. How long is the regular growing time for asparagus?
Answer: Asparagus is one of only a handful of perennial vegetables we can grow here in Pennsylvania. While the plants are productive for many, many years, it can be somewhat of a challenge to get them established.
It’s important that asparagus plants are planted and cared for in a particular way for the first few years of their life so they can build up enough energy to begin to produce their delicious, edible spears.
Ideally, when planting asparagus, you should select a cultivar that is all male. Like holly plants, asparagus plants are monoecious, meaning that each plant is either male or female. All-male asparagus varieties, like “Jersey Knight” or “Jersey Giant,” are propagated by division to keep the variety all male. These selections tend to reach maturity faster and produce larger spears due to their lack of seed production.
Most often, asparagus is planted from bare-root crowns, but some nurseries do carry the plants. I’ve had the best success when planting from bare-root crowns soaked in tepid water for a few hours prior to planting.
Prepare the patch
Sites with full sun and well-drained soils rich in organic matter are best for growing asparagus. You’d also be wise to mulch your asparagus bed with a 1- to 2-inch-thick layer of shredded leaves or straw to limit weed competition and help retain soil moisture.
The whisks you currently see in your new asparagus patch are the “ferns” that the spears eventually turn into as the season progresses. These “ferns” are photosynthesizing and building up food stores to send down to the root and fuel next year’s spear production. This “fern” production is critical as the plants take some time to mature.
Do not harvest any spears at all for the first two years after planting. After that, a light harvest of only the fattest spears can occur for three to four weeks each spring for the following two years. After those four years pass, then you will be able to make regular spring harvests over an eight-week period after the first spear’s emergence. Cutting too many spears off too soon weakens the plants and stifles their long-term production.
No matter how old the plants are, do not harvest any spears that are thinner than a pencil.
After spear harvesting ceases for the season (usually in mid summer), allow all of the spears to develop into the “ferns” and generate fuel for next year’s production. Keep the plants well-watered during times of drought, and top the bed with an inch or two of compost on a yearly basis.
Once established, asparagus patches can produce wonderful crops of spears for 20-plus years. They are well worth the wait.
Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden,” “Good Bug, Bad Bug,” and her newest title, “Container Gardening Complete.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com. Send your gardening or landscaping questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or The Good Earth, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601.