Some foods just naturally make me (Anne Moore, the gardener) think of spring. Asparagus is one of those early delights. Right now, the supermarket has it in abundance, but at a premium price here in the South.
The price seems high until I stop to think about how asparagus has to be grown. This could be the year I find room for a tender plot of green shoots. ‘Martha Washington’ is an old standby but I might try the all-male ‘Jersey Giant’. It is supposed to produce a bigger crop.
How to grow asparagus
If you want to grow your own asparagus, don’t forget to prepare the soil before you plant. Since asparagus is a perennial, it will come up year after year if you start it out correctly. This is the only opportunity you will have to get the soil right for the life of the patch.
Dig copious amounts of well-rotted manure or compost into the soil, and then check the pH, which should be 6 to 8. Sandy, good-draining soil with plenty of organic matter is the ideal planting medium.
Asparagus roots usually come to you bare. Soak them in a bucket of water while you prepare their bed. Don’t let them dry out. Dig trenches 36 inches apart using your asparagus roots as your guide for the depth.
After your trench is ready, build mounds in the center, about 18 inches apart, and fan your asparagus roots over the top like an octopus. [See second photo above.] Plant them with the crown just barely under the soil surface. Fill in the trench carefully and water it well to settle out any air pockets.
Wait before you begin to harvest
Let the asparagus grow and establish for a year before you harvest any shoots.
The spears can be harvested only for four to six weeks in the plants' second year. In their third year, you can harvest for about eight to 10 weeks, until the spears get very skinny.
Then allow the tips to grow up into a ferny cloud. This growth nourishes the roots for the next spring’s crop and cannot be skipped or skimped. Lay a thick layer of compost on the bed every fall after you have cut back the withered stalks.
In January and February, Columbia, S.C., where I live, can be the most unsettled months of the year. Beautiful sunshine and balmy 60-degree F.(15-1/2 C) weather can pull me outdoors into a flurry of garden tasks. Then, like today, the sun hides, gray takes the place of blue, and a cold mist and temperatures in the 40s bring me back indoors. I’ll see what Chef Linda has cooking in her Charleston, S.C., kitchen.
English Peas & Spring Asparagus with Lemon & Capers
I (Linda Weiss the chef) am always trying to think of different ways to cook and serve vegetables. Since early petite peas and pencil-thin asparagus are two vegetables that I really like, and they pop up about the same time in the spring, this recipe is a keeper for me.
The capers give the peas and asparagus extra flavor, and the lemon burst is refreshing. You can serve this recipe with the most elegant meal or you can serve it with rice for a vegetarian luncheon or supper.
You can even make it a salad by adding your favorite dressing or a little mayonnaise to moisten it. Then serve it on Boston or Bibb lettuce. Enjoy.
1 pound petite English peas
1/2 pound of thin spring asparagus
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons capers, drained
1 lemon, juiced
Cook the peas in a small amount of salted water until peas are very tender.
Drain the peas. Snap the asparagus at the woody stem end and even off the ends with a knife. Cut into 2-inch pieces. Place in salted boiling water for about a minute or until tender. Remove to an ice bath and then drain.
In a skillet, melt the butter with the olive oil. Let the butter start to sizzle and then put in the capers. Stir the capers and cook until they start to get brown. This will give them texture. Add the juice of the lemon and cook for about 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add the drained peas and asparagus and stir to mix well. Serve hot with slices of fresh lemon on top. Serves 6.
Linda Weiss and Anne Moore, who will blog at Diggin' It about food and gardening, are friends who met while Linda was the food editor and Anne was the garden editor for South Carolina Homes & Gardens magazine. They now write articles for the ETV GardenSMART television show website, where Anne is the horticulture editor, gardening consultant, and e-newsletter editor. Anne has written for magazines and newspapers. She is a member of and a recipient of a Silver Award for magazine writing from the Garden Writers Association.
Linda is a personal chef. She attended Le Cordon Bleu of Paris’ catering program. She has appeared as a guest chef on numerous television shows, has been a culinary educator for 10 years, and a food writer for a number of magazines. She is a professional member of The James Beard Foundation and the Southern Foodways Alliance. She has written a cookbook, "Memories From Home, Cooking with Family and Friends."