Asparagus Forever

Featured Article, How-To, In Season
on May 14, 2011

The little patch of ground where I grow tomatoes, squash, and eggplant isn’t so much a garden as a battleground. It’s me vs. nature from May until October.  I don’t know what’s more likely to defeat me, the delicacy of the plants I’m trying to grow or the resilience of the plants I’m trying to kill.

Plants with delicious leaves, fruits, or roots need special soil, constant nurturing, and protection from pests—and they need it fresh, every year!  Weeds, though, come up of their own accord, in a crack in the sidewalk, every spring without fail.

Why is it that food is a finicky annual and weed is a tenacious perennial?

There is one happy exception.  Let’s hear it for asparagus!

I know, I know—it’s not literally the only perennial vegetable. There are sunchokes but, let’s face it, they aren’t nearly as delicious as asparagus. There are artichokes, but they require a much warmer climate than most of us are blessed with. There’s rhubarb, but that’s not exactly the most versatile of plants. And, of course, there are lots of weeds whose marginal edibility almost qualifies them as vegetables (sorrel, anyone?).

But there’s no doubt that asparagus is the best of the bunch, and its time is now. If you grow asparagus, you’ve probably seen the first few spears poking up toward the sunshine. I planted mine last year, and the first two little points are just coming up. Which brings us to the … ahem … suggestive nature of the manner in which asparagus first makes itself known.  It’s a fitting symbol of this most fertile season.

If you don’t grow asparagus, it’s time to remedy that situation.

Unless you’re prepared for the hassle and heartbreak of growing asparagus from seed, you’ll want to start with crowns (the inexplicable name for year-old asparagus plants).  The crowns, which look like hair extenders for Raggedy Ann, get planted in trenches and gradually covered up as they begin to grow.

A warning, though: Asparagus is not an immediate-gratification kind of crop.  You’ll get asparagus that first year, but harvest them at your peril.  The spear isn’t the fruit; it’s a part of the plant.  If you take it while the plant is still establishing itself, you’ll weaken it and jeopardize its long-term viability, and all your effort will be for nothing.  The second year, you can treat yourself to a spear or two, but hold off until the third year to harvest in earnest.

And that’s the payoff.

Whether your asparagus is home-grown or store-bought, don’t let me catch you snapping the ends off!  While it’s a nice trick, and a labor saver, it wastes too much of a vegetable that you’ve put in a lot of work (or spent a lot of money) to acquire.  Instead, use a vegetable peeler and take the fibrous outer layer off the bottom part of the spear.

I hear your protests: But that part’s woody!  It’s too much work!  If you believe that the spear naturally breaks just above the woody bit, try a little experiment.  Take a nice, long, thick spear.  Break it at its “natural” spot.  And then break it again.  See?

In most parts of the country, now is the time to get your asparagus bed started.  And, if you make the investment that first year, those spears will come up every spring for decades, all by themselves.  Next year, you can kick back with a good book and an umbrella drink, and wish tomatoes grew this way.

—By Tamar Haspel,