How to grow asparagus: Another lesson from the Global Garden
Asparagus hardly ranks as an exotic edible, but harvesting this imported favorite of Thomas Jefferson in my own yard has been something of a dream. Two years ago, while taking the UC Cooperative Extension's master gardener class, I learned how to transplant asparagus seedlings, holding the delicate plant by the leaves, not the stem. But when I transplanted the seedlings into a bed, they lasted about a year, sending out a few anemic new shoots but never maturing into the leafy mini-forests I had seen in others’ gardens. No rhizome ever developed underground to provide the energy for the shoots of springtime.
In contrast, I talked to community gardeners from the beach to the valley who complained that their asparagus grew out of control. It was on the verge of becoming invasive, they said.
At Ocean View Farms on the Westside of L.A., Maurice Haber had put in two asparagus plants but said one would have been enough. After slightly more than a year, he had more spears than he could eat.
Why the different results?
Haber credited his vigorous crop to a steady diet of compost and manure tea. Cardie Molina at the Eagle Rockdale Community Garden in northeast L.A. planted six seedlings of Martha Washington asparagus cultivars two years ago and is awaiting this spring’s crop eagerly, even though she knows she’ll only get a few edible volunteers because more vigorous growth can take a few years.
“This spring I think it’ll come up with some decent-sized spears,” says Molina, left. “It’s like a long-term investment in time. I don’t regret it because then it’ll be there, in perpetuity. Even if you’re not around, that bed is there to stay."
This column is called the Global Garden, so I should note that Asparagus officinalis is native to Europe, North Africa and western Asia. It appeared on a 5,000-year-old Egyptian hieroglyph and was featured in what was believed to be the first cookbook in Latin, in AD 3. The name comes from the Persian word for sprout, asparag, while officialis means “from the dispensary,” a reference to its qualities as a diuretic. In medieval Italy, the rhizome was thought to be an effective form of birth control. Louis XIV built greenhouses dedicated to this “food of kings.”
Ever the optimist, I’m trying again. Planting asparagus, like planting a tree, takes commitment. To achieve two harvests a year, my “California Master Gardener Handbook” suggests planting double the number of plants I think I'll need, then harvesting half in the spring and letting the other half go to ferns. In mid-July, I'll cut back the ferns in the unharvested half and wait for edible shoots to come up late in the season. Eventually.
-- Jeff Spurrier
The Global Garden, a look at our multicultural city through what it plants, appears on Tuesdays. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page for gardening in the West.
Photo, top: Asparagus grows in Justin McInteer's tiny garden in Echo Park. Photos: Ann Summa