Asparagus: Early, Easy and Excellent

Seven steps to growing superior asparagus spears, year after year.

| February/March 2007

Fresh from the garden, asparagus is the very essence of spring. The sweet, slender spears are at their best lightly steamed and topped with a bit of butter and maybe a drop of lemon juice. Of course, you can enjoy your bountiful crop in plenty of other ways, too: sautéed, roasted, grilled, in sauce or microwaved, alone or with other veggies in soups, stir-fries and salads. Any way you slice it, asparagus is one of the most delicious vegetables you can grow.

But the beauty of asparagus is more than skin deep. One of the few perennial vegetable crops, asparagus comes back year after year, producing pounds of succulent spears for 15 to 20 years or more. In fact, when it comes to productivity, asparagus is difficult to top. A modest planting of 25 all-male crowns (dormant roots) will yield up to 20 pounds of edible spears per year — that’s 400 pounds or more over a 20-year period! And it’s simple to store your bounty of spring asparagus in the freezer — just blanch it in boiling water, then chill in ice water before you pop it in the freezer.

Asparagus is not difficult to grow, either. While it takes some time to get a crop started, if you choose your variety and site wisely, then provide basic care as outlined here, you’re on your way to decades of good eating.

1. For highest yields, choose “all-male” varieties. Until about 20 years ago, all asparagus varieties were a mixture of male and female plants. But Rutgers University researchers developed a method for propagating only the male plants (the female plants produce seeds). These “all-male” asparagus varieties — including ‘Jersey Giant, 'Jersey Supreme’ and ‘Jersey Knight' — produce up to three times more than older, open-pollinated male/female varieties, such as ‘Mary Washington.’

That’s because they put all of their energy into producing spears rather than seeds, according to Chee-kok Chin, a professor of plant biology and pathology at Rutgers. That also means male plants do not produce volunteer seedlings, which compete against the established plants and reduce yields. All-male hybrids also are more disease resistant than older varieties. In fact, one of the best ways to avoid asparagus rust, a fungal disease that reduces yields, is to plant rust-resistant varieties.

2. Take time to make a cozy bed. Remember that your asparagus will call this site “home” for many years to come, so it’s best to choose a good location and prepare it carefully, says Mathieu Ngouajio, assistant professor of horticulture at Michigan State University.

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