Start an Asparagus Bed
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By David Higginbotham
Master Gardener℠ volunteer in Chatham County
Asparagus is a perennial vegetable that can produce stalks each spring for many years and is one of the first things that can be harvested from the garden in early spring. It likes a deep well-drained friable soil that is generously enhanced with compost. A raised bed makes a great environment for growing asparagus. You will want to have your soil tested prior to planting to be assured that the pH of the soil is in the 6.0-7.0 range. Soil Testing is performed free of charge by the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Agronomic Services Division between March and November, you can contact your county Cooperative Extension Center for soil testing sample boxes and directions.
After you get a nice bed prepared, purchase some asparagus crowns. Crowns are the collective name for several plant parts that contribute to the plant’s growth. There is the rhizome, a horizontal underground growing stem, there are spongy/fleshy roots that store energy for the plant and there are more tough fibrous roots that take up nutrients and water from the soil to feed the plant, and there is a cluster of buds. It is these buds from which the spears grow and break the surface of the ground. It is the spears that we harvest and eat.
The one-year-old crowns can be found at most garden centers these days. You will want to choose a center that you trust to have disease-free healthy stock. They are most often sold in a bundle of 15-20 crowns more or less. A rule of thumb is to plant 10 crowns for each family member. Asparagus has male and female plants and different varieties are either male or female. ‘Mary Washington’ is a popular heirloom variety that produces female plants. Female plants generally do not produce as thick or as many spears as the male plants. More recently hardy male varieties often with the word ‘Jersey’ as part of the variety name have become readily available.
Once you have a bed prepared and have purchased your crowns you need to plant them. The crowns should be planted in the late winter after the chance of a hard freeze has passed. They want to be spaced about twelve inches apart within rows and five feet between rows, although a little closer spacing may increase yields at the cost of reduced lifespan of the bed. Dig a furrow about eight inches deep and wide enough to accept the crowns when the root system of each crown is fully spread out. Spread out the root system of each crown and place them in the furrow with the buds pointing upward and then cover them with about two inches of soil. As the plants grow add soil from the bed a little at a time until the furrow is filled.
Keep the bed weed-free throughout the season. In the spring of each year before the spears start growing, usually around mid to late March for the Piedmont region of NC, apply a complete fertilizer, one with a percentage of all three N-P-K components such as 5-10-10 at a rate between 2 and 5 lbs per 100 square feet. Do this again each year at the end of the cutting season which will last for 6 to 8 weeks.
Asparagus will produce spears for a long time, often as long as 15 years. However, it takes a couple of years for the plants to get well established. With that in mind, resist temptation and do not harvest the spears at all the first year. In the second year, you will want to harvest the spears for only one or two weeks. After the second year, you can expect a well-cared bed to be harvested for 6 to 8 weeks. To harvest the spears simply cut or snap off the individual spears at ground level thus protecting the newly emerging spears from damage.
After the harvest period, allow the plants to grow on into the fall, they will form a fern-like stalk of leaves that can be several feet tall, these are providing energy to the plant through photosynthesis. After the plants have turned brown in the fall cut the ferns, remove them from the bed and destroy them. It is best to wait until after the first frost as the ferns are brittle and more easily removed and if cut down before frost the next years may be reduced.
For more information, see these publications from NC State Extension: