Gardeners can afford a taste for asparagus

I still recall the day I first ate asparagus with enthusiasm. My sister-in-law had taken canned asparagus spears and rolled each one separately in a thin slice of bread, crusts removed. One taste of these hors d'oeuvres and all boyhood belief that I disliked the vegetable vanished forever.

Later, in a Swiss restaurant, I ate asparagus as a hot dish for the first time. But it was on this side of the Atlantic that I learned how the vegetable tastes best of all - picked fresh from the garden in its natural green state and served, hot, cold, or even raw.

European custom dictates that asparagus be blanched (by hilling around the plants as they grow), but I find that this great vegetable has even more taste when allowed to green up the natural way.

Many gardeners avoid growing asparagus because they feel it is a difficult crop to grow well, or because they feel they lack the space. But there are several good reasons for reconsidering this reluctance. They are:

* Canned or fresh, asparagus comes in only one price range at the store - expensive. You will almost certainly enjoy more of the delicacy if you grow your own.

* Asparagus is long-lived. One planting should last two decades. Put another way, the bed you plant when your child is born will only need renewing when he or she graduates from college.

* Apart from initial soil preparation and watching that the patch is not invaded by competing grass roots, asparagus is relatively simple to grow.

* It can be eaten in many ways. Snap off a spear in the garden and eat it then and there for the best taste of all. Or it can be served in a salad or with a dip. Hot asparagus needs only a little butter to make a great dish, or it can be served with any one of a number of steaming sauces. Try adding your favorite salad dressing to cold, cooked asparagus.

* Its feathery, fernlike foliage makes it an attractive addition to any garden - as a backdrop to a flower bed or as a hedgelike screen between the flower and vegetable gardens.

In the early spring, asparagus sends up shoots that are harvested over a two-month period, though there are procedures at planting time that can ensure a longer harvest season. Later on, the fronds are left to develop into the feathery leaves that produce the energy for the following season's edible stalks.

If you have the room to grow asparagus for an extended harvest, dig three trenches - 12, 9, and 6 inches deep, respectively. Fill the bottom of the trenches with manure, compost, and other organic waste or soil amendments to a depth of about 4 inches. Add a little soil and spread out the roots of the asparagus crown on the surface, allowing 18 inches between each crown. Cover with 2 inches of soil, press firmly around the roots, and water well.

As the shoots start to grow, add soil to the trenches until they are level with the surrounding surface.

You now have asparagus growing 8, 5, and 2 inches deep. In the spring, the soil grows warm from the surface down, so the more shallowly planted rows respond first and can be harvested early. In turn, the more deeply planted rows continue yielding later into the season. Leave out 8-inch-deep plantings if your soil is a heavy clay.

Once the plants are up and growing in the spring, add about 2 inches of shredded leaves or some other mulch to keep down weed competition and to maintain the soil in a rich, friable condition. After frost, remove the withered fronds for composting.

Asparagus can be started from seed, but planting 2-year-old crowns (available from mail-order nurseries and garden centers) allows a quicker harvest. As it is , take no cuttings the year you plant, and limit the second-year harvest to between 2 and 3 weeks. Thereafter, you can enjoy an 8- to 10-week harvest year after year.

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