Planting asparagus is only for patient gardeners

THE REAL DIRT

March 02, 1991|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

I have made my will, paid my life insurance premiums and settled all debts, including the pruning saw I borrowed from a neighbor in 1988. All my personal affairs are in order.

I am about to embark on a perilous mission, one from which I may never return.

I am going to plant asparagus in the back yard.

Gardeners will understand my concerns. If you've ever planted asparagus crowns, you know what I mean. Digging a 2-foot deep asparagus trench is like digging your own grave: when you're finished the grueling job, you want to collapse in the pit.

If that happens to me, just fill in the hole. Asparagus loves lots of fertilizer.

There is no other vegetable for which I would lay down my life. Despite the initial labor, a well-prepared asparagus bed should produce fat and sassy spears for at least 2 decades. That means I'll still be eating from this year's crop in 2010, provided I survive the digging.

I remember the last time I planted asparagus, in 1977. Afterward, I felt like I had single-handedly dug the Panama Canal.

It's my own fault, I suppose. I overdo it. I plant the crowns twice as deep as most gardeners, in hopes that they will yield bigger spears. Monster spears. Spears with the girth of young redwoods.

I have yet to harvest the asparagus of my dreams. I don't exactly need an ax to chop down my dinner, but the stalks are plump, tender and bountiful from April to July. Two dozen plants produce all the fresh asparagus we need. Once, during an extraordinary spring, this majestic vegetable landed on my dinner plate for eight straight days.

Occasionally, on warm, humid days in May, I swear I can see the spears growing. I'll know it's so if the dog starts growling at them.

Once planted, asparagus is a joy to tend. All it needs is a heavy dose of 10-10-10 fertilizer in early spring, regular weeding, and a good soaking during periods of extreme drought.

But now my asparagus bed is aging, and the plants are slowing down. The change is almost imperceptible at first, like a .300 baseball hitter who slips to .299. But I am the manager of this garden, and I know all the players.

The asparagus is nearing retirement, and I must plant its successor. The work must be done now because asparagus beds, like baseball players, take time to develop. Three years, in fact. Asparagus is one of the rare vegetables that can't leap straight into the big leagues.

A bed of 1-year-old crowns planted this spring cannot be harvested until 1994. The plants need 3 years to develop strong root systems, which can extend 6 feet in all directions.

Asparagus lovers are patient people. Growing this vegetable involves hours of labor with no immediate reward. The 3-year moratorium on harvesting is a real bummer. You could pay off a new car loan in less time than it takes asparagus to establish itself.

In fact, gardeners who plant asparagus are hurting the real estate market. In effect, they are promising not to sell their homes until the turn of the century, so that they may reap the fruits of their labor.

Although 1- and 2-year-old crowns are readily available from nurseries and garden supply centers, an increasing demand from impatient gardeners has led some commercial growers to offer 3-year-old crowns. Though more susceptible to transplant shock, these older roots produce asparagus that may be lightly harvested the following year.

The 3-year-old crowns are available by mail from Rayner Brothers, a plant farm in Salisbury that has been selling asparagus to home gardeners for 65 years. (For information write Rayner Bros., P.O. Box 1677, Salisbury, Md. 21802.)

Some people can't seem to wait one year to cut the spears, says Curt Massey, company president.

"They ask, 'Can I plant it today and cut it in 2 weeks?' " he says. Mr. Massey understands. "Nothing compares with the asparagus that comes from your own yard."

Mr. Massey says many people are too busy to manage large gardens these days. He knows homeowners who have converted their gardens to grass. But they always manage to keep their asparagus patch, he says, even if its feathery foliage sticks out in the middle of the lawn.

"When you put that much time into it, you don't want to give it up," he says.

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