When planting asparagus, think long-term

Growing the vegetable takes patience – plants produce tender stalks for up to 30 years.

I spent the morning of March 21 planting an asparagus bed.

It's not my asparagus bed, so I can be sanguine about this endeavor, which to me seems to have but a slim chance of success. Asparagus likes it cold and shady. This bed is in full sun and in South Carolina, where the heat of the typical July is surpassed only by the heat of the typical August. If I, a native of south Louisiana, find the summer hot, I can only imagine what the asparagus will think.

Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the saying goes.

This asparagus experiment is housed in a raised bed at the living history garden at our local science education center. I volunteer there as part of my master gardener training. The living history garden is an old-fashioned farm, built to show third-graders what life was like in most of the world up until quite recently. Kids get to feed chickens, pet sheep, shovel manure, layer compost, and turn the soil in beds waiting to receive bean or tomato seeds.

They love it.

A spry 80-something named Helen runs the garden. She strolls about her domain at a leisurely pace, making sure every would-be worker has a job to do and seizing any teachable moment by grabbing someone's arm and pointing out some new wonder. "See that weed with the pink flowers?" she'll say. "That's henbit. If you dig it out now, you'll do yourself a favor for the next seven years, because that's how long its seeds will last. Feed it to the chickens when you get a basket full. They love it." And so they do.

Helen was dubious about the asparagus, but her assistant, Kim, wanted to try it, so Helen told her to go ahead. The garden uses as many heirloom plants as possible, so Kim chose Martha Washington as the female variety. It grows at Mount Vernon, so you know it's old. The male plants were more problematic – they particularly dislike heat. As a compromise between tradition and modernity, Kim chose a new heat-tolerant cultivar named only with a series of numbers – 157 F1. A plant with a name that could adorn a fighter jet must be masculine.

Kim and I loaded a wheelbarrow with spades, a rake, and 16 wooden stakes. Helen handed us two buckets of baby asparagus roots soaking in water. We wheeled our gear to the waiting bed and spent several minutes contemplating the proper arrangement for these new plants.

Planting asparagus is nearly as big a commitment as building a house, so it pays to plan before planting. We settled on a traditional zigzag pattern – the female plants in a row on the south side and the males on the north. We marked the pattern with stakes and began digging. My spade plunged in to the hilt with no effort on my part, none of the usual stabbing and jumping up and down I do in my own clay soil. Helen had been adding compost to this bed for the past 10 years.

We dug the holes more than a foot in diameter and deep. In the bottoms we heaped the soil into little mounds like volcanoes, the tops about six inches below the surface. We placed each asparagus crown on top of a little volcano, spreading its roots down and around so that it looked like a skinny yellow octopus.

Helen strolled by every once in a while to observe and make a comment. She borrowed an unplanted crown to show the group of children turning the bean bed. "Did you know that not all plants come from seeds?" she asked them. "See, some grow from roots."

We covered the crowns with two inches of soil. After we tidied the bed and covered it with netting to keep off the raccoons, it looked like the surface of the moon, pocked with large, even craters.

Later, as the green shoots emerge, we'll cover them with more soil, filling the holes inch by inch over many days.

The kids passed the asparagus bed as they trooped out of the garden. "Why did you dig all those holes?" asked one girl.

We're planting asparagus," replied Helen. "We can start harvesting it in two or three years, but it'll take 10 years or so for the plants to really produce a lot."

"Ten years! I'll be grown up," exclaimed the child. She scampered off to rejoin her class.

The asparagus is now in its new home. Maybe it'll die. But if a home prepared with love, skill, and diligent attention to culture can make it thrive, it should do fine.

Helen and Kim will guard the bed next year to make sure no one harvests it before its time. And maybe this current crop of third-graders can eat the asparagus when they graduate from high school. It should be just about perfect then.

Chilled asparagus with mustard herb vinaigrette

This recipe is from the Culinary Institute of America's new cookbook, 'Vegetables' (Lebhar-Friedman Books, $40), a beautiful compendium of tested recipes and illustrated techniques for using a wide variety of fresh-from-the-garden (or the farmers' market) produce.

2 pounds asparagus

2 tablespoons cider vinegar or white wine vinegar

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon chopped flat-leaf parsley

1/2 teaspoon chopped tarragon leaves

Salt and pepper as needed

Dash of onion powder

Dash of garlic powder

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil.

Trim the asparagus to remove the white, fibrous ends and cut the usable stalks on the diagonal into 2-inch pieces.

Add the asparagus to the boiling water and cook until the spears are bright green and just tender, 4 to 5 minutes. (If necessary, cook the asparagus in batches.)

Drain the asparagus in a colander and rinse with cold water until the asparagus is chilled. It is ready to dress and serve now, or it can be held in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 6 hours.

To make the vinaigrette, whisk together the vinegar, mustard, parsley, tarragon, salt, pepper, onion powder, and garlic powder until blended. Add the oil to the vinegar mixture in a thin stream, whisking constantly.

Toss the chilled asparagus with the vinaigrette or pass it separately on the side. Serve immediately on a chilled platter or plates.

Makes 8 servings.

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