Asparagus, botanically known as Asparagus officinalis, is a member of the Liliaceae family. Considered a perennial herb, asparagus has an underground rhizome from which its edible young stems, known as spears, emerge during the spring and summer months. Asparagus plants are either male or female, the females volunteer seeds while males do not. Having less energy spent on producing seeds, males creates a thicker, more flavorful stalks.
Asparagus contains more glutathione than any other fruit or vegetable. This antioxidant plays an important role in the prevention of certain cancers and diseases, nutrient metabolism and regulating DNA and protein synthesis.
Asparagus may be used in all recipes calling for any size asparagus. All asparagus spears should be snapped at their natural breaking or bending point. Discard the lower parts as they are too fibrous and woody to eat. Asparagus can be sauteed, steamed, boiled, baked and fried. Spring ingredients such as morel mushrooms, green garlic, wild ramps, fennel, leeks, young lettuces and citruses are most suitable pairings. Other complimentary ingredients include olive oil, aged cheese, bacon, sausage, lamb, prosciutto, cream, eggs, butter, shallots, and fresh herbs. Asparagus works well with yeasty breads, like sourdough and wheat, and grains such as aborio rice, quinoa and farro.
Revered by the Egyptians, asparagus has been cultivated and eaten as a medicinal plant in Egypt for over 2,000 years. Asparagus was so cherished by the Egyptians that offerings of their crop would be used in rituals to appease their gods. In ancient Rome asparagus was grown in gardens where the stalks are said to have reached massive sizes of up to three spears per pound. Ancient Greeks and Romans used the Persian word for shoot, “asparag”, when referring to what we now call asparagus.
Asparagus is native to most of Europe, northern Africa and western Asia. Though widely found growing wild it is has been cultivated as a vegetable crop for centuries. As it was historically found growing in maritime regions, it prefers sandy weedless soils. Adding saline to soil to replicate this habitat can allow for fertile soil conditions. The agricultural downside to this is that most other edible vegetation does not thrive in sandy soil.
Asparagus plants may take 2 to 3 years to truly get started and produce, so patience is needed! But then again, the plant can be productive up to 20 years, it’s worth the wait.
- How much your family enjoys asparagus determines how many plants you will need. A good start is 10 plants for each person. If it is a family favorite or you plan to freeze some for later, you will need more.
Soil, Planting, and Care
The key to growing asparagus is to have healthy, vigorous plants that produce a lot of spears. Choose a sunny, well-drained site on the edge of your garden where it will not be disturbed by the activity of planting and re-planting other areas.
As plants grow taller, rake a little of the soil on the edge of the row into the depression where plants are growing. Soon the bed will be level. Mulch to prevent weeds.
Then all you need to do is be patient. The ideal is to wait at least 2 seasons and probably 3 before harvesting. It may be hard to resist tasting the first spears to emerge, but go easy on the plants until they mature. You’ll be rewarded in the long run
- Asparagus is planted in early spring as soon as the soil can be worked. The plant is grown from “crowns” (1-year-old plants).
- Eliminate all weeds from the bed, digging it over and working in a 2- to 4-inch layer of compost, manure or soil mix. (Learn more about soil amendments and preparing soil for planting.)
- Dig trenches of about 6 inches wide and 6 to 12 inches deep. Some experts believe shallow trenches of 6 inches are best.
- Asparagus does not like to have its feet “wet,” so be sure your bed has good drainage. For that reason, raised beds can be a good place to plant asparagus. Learn how to make a raised garden bed.
- Create a mound in the trench and plant the crowns 15 to 18 inches apart, spreading the roots over the ridge.
- Cover the roots and crowns with soil 2 inches deep and water thoroughly.
- As the stems grow, fill in the rest of the trench with soil, leaving 3 to 4 inches of the stem exposed.
- When the trench is filled, add a 4 to 8 inch layer of mulch and water regularly.
- Do not harvest the spears in the first year, but cut down dead foliage in late fall and side-dress with compost.
- During the second year, keep the bed thickly mulched, side-dress in spring and early fall, and cut down dead foliage in late fall.
- Asparagus can take three growing seasons to harvest, though you may be able to lightly harvest during the second year.
- In the first year, just let the asparagus go vegetative to give the crown a chance to get well established. Next spring, remove the old fern growth from the previous year, and keep an eye open for the new spears to begin emerging.
- For the following years, maintain the bed and harvest only the spears thicker than a pencil.
- The asparagus can be harvested for a period of about two to three weeks once the spears start to show. Keep a close eye on your asparagus so that you don’t miss the harvest—they grow fast!
- After harvest, allow the ferns to grow; this replenishes the nutrients for next year’s spear production.
- Cut spears that are about 6 inches in length at an angle.
- Asparagus freezes well.