Companion Planting: Strawberries, Asparagus, Rhubarb and Horseradish

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Horseradish, rhubarb, asparagus and strawberries are good companions.
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In asparagus rows, dig a trench 1.5 feet deep and wide, mounding soil in a 6 inch high ridge down the middle.
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Spread strawberry roots so they're all covered, but just the bottom of the bud is well underground.
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You can plant a companion bed of strawberries, asparagus, horseradish and rhubarb that will produce for generations.
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A cross section of the asparagus trench during planting.
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Boxing horseradish will keep it from overrunning the rest of the bed.

It wasn’t till one evening in June–a little more than
three years after quitting the city rat race and moving
onto a little New England hill farm-that I began to feel
deep down that I’d really arrived on the land.

I’d collected the eggs, fed and watered stock that morning,
put supers on the beehives, worked the gardens, and fed the
weeds and thinnings to the rabbits and goats over the
afternoon. Then my wife and I and some special guests (the
kind who help cook and clean up) sat down to a feast that
no restaurant offered and that no grocery could
provision–our first 100% fresh, 100% chemical-free
(and nearly cost free to boot), 100% home-raised meal. The
entree was crisp on the outside, succulent inside haunch of
spring chevon (that’s kid–young goat) I’d
spit-roasted on the hearth. We had roasted White Mountain
potatoes from the cold cellar, wheat bread still steaming
from the woodstove oven, sugar snap peas and young beets
with greens from the gardens, and a
half-cultivated/half-wild green salad dressed with
home-pressed apple-cider vinegar–all of it washed
down with homemade dandelion/citrus wine and pioneer coffee
of ground roast white oak acorns and chicory root.
Highlights were a sauce for the chevon made with our own
honey, cracked turnip (mustard) seed, vinegar, and fresh
grated horseradish, crisp but tender asparagus almost two
inches thick at the base, and strawberry-rhubarb pie from
the asparagus/strawberry-rhubarb/horseradish bed I’d put in
during our first spring on the place.

Over the years, goats and other livestock came and went,
vegetables were planted every spring, and the home cider
pressing and wine making was so labor intensive that it
proved to be but a brief experiment. But the
asparagus/strawberry etc. bed fed us with little attention
till real-estate development pushed us farther into the
wilderness. Last I heard it was producing still for new
owners more than a generation later.

It is mighty fine to sink your roots and psyche into a
piece of land, even if it’s no more than an acre or two and
you still commute to a paying job in town. A good way to
confirm those roots to yourself is to set in plants that
may take awhile to bear, but that will continue producing
for years, decades, or a lifetime. It affirms that you
anticipate a degree of calm and settled, rural, low-tech
permanency in this unsettled, urbanized, high-tech age. If
you’ll be able to stay put for a while (or perhaps, even if
you won’t) here’s how to build an old-time
asparagus/strawberry bed, with plantings of horseradish and
rhubarb that will feed you and yours for 20 years and more.

Asparagus

Asparagus is a member of the Lily family of long-lived,
storage-rooted perennials. It originated in coastal Eurasia
and came to North America with early settlers. With few
cultural demands other than an absolute need to be chilled
well over winter, one variety or another will grow
practically anywhere but in the Deep South. Indeed, it
naturalizes easily; the red seed berries produced by mature
female plants each fall are relished by birds, and they
scatter the seeds widely in their droppings. Once you’ve
grown your own asparagus, you’ll begin noticing the
distinctive fern-like greenery reaching above grasses and
low weeds in fields, meadows, and along roadsides
everywhere. Fronds grow three to four feet high with a
fine, lacy umbrella high up on the thin, woody stalk that
allows the sun to filter through. So, you can plant low
growing, broad leaved annual vegetables or biennial
strawberries between the asparagus rows and they will
thrive.

Commercial growers propagate asparagus roots from seed, dig
them when dormant in late fall of their first, second, or
third year, then wash, sterilize, and store them
bare-rooted over winter for sale early the following
spring. Most roots sold are two-year-olds that will be
ready for harvest after two more years of growth. I’ve been
told that only the larger and more vigorous two-year-old
roots are sold; smaller specimens and unsold leftovers are
replanted or left in the ground to grow another year. The
resulting three-year-old “jumbo roots” are not that much
larger and offer no harvest advantage over two year olds,
but cost more. One-year-old roots must be left unpicked for
an extra year before harvest–hardly worth the
dime-a-root advantage in price. In my experience (having
tried all sizes as well as growing from seed), you will end
up with heartier stock that produces better over the long
run with vigorous two year old roots.

Here in the Northeast, boxes of dry asparagus roots arrive
at our local farm co-op and some hardware stores and garden
supply houses in late March or April. Most mail-order
seedsmen sell them as well. Price is $4.00 to $6.50 for
bundles of 10 one-year-old roots, a buck more for
two-year-olds, and maybe 80¢ more for threes. When
bought by mail, you can’t specify arrival date, as they
aren’t removed from cold storage till “time for planting in
your area” late March, April, or May. Most seedsmen won’t
mail live plants outside the continental U.S. and Canada.
Plants are grown from sterilized seed in heavily fumigated
land, and are certified to be free of asparagus rust and
fusarium, two soil-borne diseases that seldom kill but can
disfigure spears around the base, making them small,
crooked, and tough, and that generally debilitate the
plants. California prohibits their import altogether.

Asparagus roots resemble nothing so much as octopi too long
out of water: a cluster of ugly gray-brown, foot long,
pencil thin, rubbery single strand roots dangling limply
from a central disk. They usually arrive in the mail packed
in sawdust and are better stored dry in the heat of the
kitchen than down in a dank cellar where they will absorb
water and sprout a luxuriant blue-green mold. Indeed, if
you order by mail, I recommend that you immediately remove
the roots from the packing and dry them out. I’ll bet you a
serving of asparagus with hollandaise sauce that they are
already a little moldy. Don’t wash them. Just let them dry
well and the mold will go dormant (and be eaten by soil
organisms once roots are planted). If they must be kept for
more than a few days before planting, untie the roots and
put them loose in the main body (in dry air) of your
refrigerator till planting time.

A bundle of 10 roots will fill about 20 feet of row and
produce four to five pounds of spears per year over a
month-to-six-week cutting period. That means that for each
one pound of spears you will need a pair of mature roots,
requiring three to four running feet of row (rows and roots
in the row spaced 18″ to 24″ apart). To figure out how many
roots to plant, buy enough store asparagus to provide side
dishes for the family. A one-pound bundle will be ample for
most. Decide how many times a year you want asparagus
(including frozen meals). Multiply the pounds used per meal
by two to determine number of roots needed and multiply
that figure by 3.5 to 4 to determine feet of garden row
required. (Example: 20 meal/yr x 1 1b/meal = 20 1b/yr x 3.5
row-feet for the pair of roots needed to produce a pound of
spears = 70 row-feet, needing 35 roots.) If your garden is
the typical 25 feet wide, that’s three rows taking up seven
or eight feet at one end.

For years, Mary Washington (a reselected, open-pollinated
variety) was the standard for home gardens. It is still
sold (as is Waltham, the even earlier standard variety),
but these days you can find a wider selection. A good
choice for mild climates such as the Pacific Northwest, the
Southwest, and Southeast is UC 157. The best-adapted for
most of North America is the Jersey Giant/Knight hybrid
developed by Rutgers University. It ignores asparagus root
and crown rots, resists rusts, and produces mostly male
plants which, being spared the chore of making berries and
seed, live longer and produce more heavily than the ladies.
If you do get a female plant that produces small red
berries, don’t try planting its seed, which will be
open-pollinated and of uncertain quality.

If you do want to try growing from seed, production will be
delayed an extra year while you grow seedlings in a nursery
row for conventional transplantation. Burpee sells Mary
Washington seed (along with its roots and roots of Jersey
Giant and UC 157). But so far, seed is the only
way so far to obtain Viking KB3, a new hybrid widely
adapted for heat and temperature extremes and recommended
for both the Great White North and for the South. It was
developed and is sold by the Canadian seed house, Stokes.

Strawberries

For luscious red fruit that begin to appear when the
asparagus is almost gone by, set strawberry plants between
the rows of asparagus roots. The berry plants do well if
planted one foot apart, in rows two feet apart. Since
asparagus is spaced two feet apart in rows the same
distance apart, purchase twice as many strawberry plants as
you have asparagus roots.

Like commercial asparagus roots, one-year-old strawberry
plants are dug in the fall and stored bare-root over winter
for sale in early spring. Traditional June-bearers turn out one large spring
crop and come in the largest variety for the widest range
of growing conditions. Everbearers produce a large crop in
June and a single, smaller crop of smaller fruit in the
fall. Ozark Beauty is a widely adapted everbearing variety.
The new Day-Neutral varieties set and ripen berries year
round, with a larger crop at one end of the season, or the
other, or both.

I’ve tried them all and find that I get more seed than
berry anytime but June. I keep experimenting with new
varieties; but for guaranteed pies, jam, and pigging out on
vine-ripe berries, eaten out of hand in the berry patch, I
stay with June-bearers. Most are self-pollinating; but to
be sure you get a good crop, plant at least two varieties.
Buy plants locally or get Raynor’s and other strawberry
growers’ catalogs advertised in MOTHER. Grow several
varieties recommended for your area. If one proves to be
far superior, transplant its runner-born plantlets out into
your entire bed. Or (as is best every five years anyway)
buy all new disease free parent stock and renew the bed. In
gardens located from Central Pennsylvania to Northern
Michigan to Coastal Maine, I’ve never found a more reliable
strawberry variety than Sparkle.

Rhubarb

A native of Turkey, and best adapted to cool climates,
rhubarb is one of the few garden plants cultivated for its
stems only. Leaves and roots contain oxalic acid among
other poisons and are toxic. Don’t plant anywhere toddlers
can get at it.

The best way to obtain plants is to convince a gardening
neighbor that her plants are overgrown (which they probably
are). At anytime of year, but best done when the plants are
dormant, drive a sharp spade down through the middle of any
rhubarb plant and grub out whichever half comes most
easily. Put compost in the hole and the mother plant will
be spurred into renewed vigor. Divide the reddish,
knobby-topped root cluster into quart-jar-sized cuttings
and pop into your garden. Or you can buy divisions at most
garden supply houses in the spring. I don’t know of any
mail-order sources, as the plant divisions are bulky and
cannot be shipped bare-root and dry.

To harvest, pull the large, thick stems away from the plant
base, big spade-shaped petiole, and the lower end and all.
Snap off the leaf, wash the stem if needed, and cut into
half-inch sections. For a crisp, tangy stewed fruit dish,
cook slowly till juice is out and pieces are just
soft….simmer with a pinch of salt and an equal amount of
sugar in just enough water to cover the pan bottom. Don’t
cook too long unless you like it broken up and slimy. Mix
uncooked with equal amounts of halved strawberries and
white granulated sugar for a tart pie filling.

From my great Aunts, I learned to cook early rhubarb with
rehydrated dried fruit (home-dried apricots and
cranberries, California prunes and raisins) or with
home-canned sour cherries. We enjoyed it chilled in bowls
as stewed fruit, as a filler for tarts, or spread on bread.
This was how the old-timers “stretched” one of the first
harvestable garden crops of the year.

Horseradish

This big coarse rooted member of the Mustard family is a
hardy and vigorous plant with rough-looking leaves and a
root resembling a coarse skinned parsnip some two to three
inches across at top, tapering to an inch or less and
breaking in the ground at a length of six to 12 inches. A
South Eastern European native, it has been adding tang to
meals on this continent since the early 1700s.

Maliner Kren is the standard Bavarian cultivated variety.
You can buy cuttings by mail in lots of five or six for
about $1.50 per root. Cheaper and easier is to get a few
roots from a gardening neighbor (late fall is best, but you
can dig them anytime of year) or buy roots from a fancy
greengrocer. Slice each root into four to 12 four-inch-long
pencil-sized slips. Be sure that each contains a section of
outer hide and a portion of the button-like flat top (where
leaves once grew and will sprout again). Let the cuttings
dry till the cut sides cure. I like to plant them in late
winter–flat top up–an inch or so deep in a 6″
pot filled with potting soil and keep them on a sunny
windowsill till leaves come up. When soil is warm, I
transplant them outdoors, mulch, and forget them till they
are dug up in the fall and stored in the cellar with other
root vegetables.

Horseradish is best if peeled, grated, and used fresh (a
section of washed–but not peeled–horseradish
root and a grater along with a cellar of coarse salt are
traditional accompaniments for spit-roasted beef and
Yorkshire pudding in our house). Or, mix gratings and their
juice with salt and white vinegar and keep in the
refrigerator.

If left in the soil for more than a season, the plants will
expand aggressively and your garden will soon be choked
with a solid block of woody and unusable horseradish that
is so thickly matted and has roots down so deep that it is
nigh impossible to grub out.

Practical choices are to: (1) Dig it all each fall and
replant cuttings next spring or (2) Box it in with
escape-proof edging. I do both–growing new cuttings
each spring inside squares or rectangles of foot-wide scrap
lumber buried in the ground so only the top inch or so
protrudes. Inch thick pine lasts four years or so before it
needs replacing. That green PT lumber that’s
pressure-treated against rot would last longer, but I don’t
want copper arsenate or whatever in the food garden. You
could install roof shingles, flashing, or corrugated metal
lawn edging around just so that the barrier sticks up above
ground and extends six inches down.

Planting horseradish is more than easy; stick a chunk of
root in the soil and it will grow. However, in our rocky,
shallow New England soil, any root vegetable can be hard to
dig. And when you get it out, the root will be bifurcated
or worse from snaking around rocks. I want juicy roots that
are thick enough to have something left after their rough
rinds are peeled away, and that are uniform in shape and
easy to grate. So I pick out rocks and when compost, rotted
manure, or augmented peat moss goes in to enrich the bed, I
also pitch in enough sharp sand plot that the soil is loose
to a foot depth. A square yard will grow about fifteen
roots and produce a quart or two of gratings plenty enough
for most families for a year.

Preparing The Bed

Asparagus is what’s called a “deep, heavy feeder.” Its
roots are a foot long when you get them and will grow down
another foot and more. To produce an abundant harvest of
thick, juicy spears (in excess of those it needs to
regenerate) each spring for a generation, they must have a
good stockpile of plant food down where the roots are.
Which means that the best planting bed is a deep trench
filled with rich soil packed with organic matter that will
attract earthworms and continue to decay and produce
nutrients for years. I’ve been known to dig an asparagus
bed by hand with a spade and garden fork, but that was when
my back had a few less miles on it. A perennial edibles bed
is one of the best reasons I know for (lacking a farm
tractor with a backhoe or digging bucket on the front)
investing in a big rear-tined rotary tiller. A good reason
for keeping a horse too.

Whatever your soil source, mix in a winter’s output of wood
ash or a good sprinkling of ground limestone to add
potassium and trace elements and to neutralize acids.
Asparagus is not all that picky as to soil pH, but nearly
all North American soils are more acidic than it likes, and
it will benefit from some ash or lime to sweeten it. It is
best to consult your local Cooperative Extension Service or
other expert sources for proper lime-application rates for
your soil.

However you get it done, dig your bed as deep as you can
manage. A yard down is ideal. First, remove the upper layer
of dark topsoil and lay it to one side of the trench.
Remove the next foot or so of lighter colored semi-rich
undersoil and put it on the other side. Then dig out as
much clay, sand, rocky marl, or whatever pale, base subsoil
you have compost or topsoil to replace. Discard the base
soil. Now, refill the trench with alternating shovelfuls of
top-soil, compost, and whatever additives you have. Fill in
thin layers (stomping well between each layer) to within
18″ of the top.

Horseradish and rhubarb both grow taller than strawberries
but not as high as asparagus ferns. They are dense and will
shade the berry plants so I locate them on the ends or the
north (shade) side of the bed. I prefer to locate the bed
at the top (north) of the middle garden (with staked
tomatoes, tall sunflowers, corn, and pole beans above it. I
then set rhubarb plants all along the upper margin and put
rhubarb in one or two boxed plots along the sides. I choose
the lowest, coolest, and shadiest end of the bed for
horseradish. It will grow practically anywhere; in shade,
roots will just be smaller.

Planting

Lay out asparagus rows two feet apart. In each row, dig a
trench a foot-and-a-half deep and wide, mounding soil in a
6″-high ridge down the center of each. Set a root alongside
the ridge every foot and a half to two feet. Starting at
the sunniest end of the row, scoop ridge into cones by each
crown. Arrange the long roots evenly around the cone, cover
with soil, and press firmly into the soil. The top of the
first crowns should be a good foot below the surface. As
you go down the row, make each mount a little higher, till
the last one at the shadiest end of the row is about 6″
below ground level. Now, rake soil in until it is level and
just covers each crown. Leave it loose. Over early spring,
as the shoots appear, rake soil in to cover them until the
trench is full. The small first-year fronds will nourish
the roots all summer. Keep weeds down and mulch the soil
against summer dryness and heat.

Once your asparagus has grown tall enough that you’ve
filled the trenches level, plant strawberries a foot apart
down the center of the open strips between asparagus
plants. Cut the raffia holding plants in bundles, remove
dead and discolored leaves, and put the plants in a bucket
of warm water. In the garden, dig a fan-shaped slit in the
ground. You’ll find that a new berry plant has a crown of
leaves, a firm, grape-sized bud, and a bunch of small roots
growing down from the bud. Spread plant’s roots out in a
fan shape and insert them into the slit so that all roots
are covered but just the bottom of the bud is underground.
If planted too deep, the bud will suffocate. If planted so
shallow the tops of roots are exposed, they will dry out
and the plant will die. Press soil very firmly around
roots. Make a small rain-holding saucer in the soil around
each plant and water well with a weak solution of liquid
fertilizer and tepid water. Mulch with straw, weed-free
hay, or other loose organic material and keep soil moist
till plants are bushy with new leaves.

The strawberry plants will try to fruit, but don’t let ’em.
To force energy into root storage for a bumper crop next
season, pinch off first-year flowers as soon as the little
sprays of blossoms sprout. Each plant will also put out
runners that will grow new plants at every
node–resulting in a mat of new plants that will all
fruit the next year. Left alone, in two years or three, a
berry bed will become a thick mass of plants that produces
few berries. In small plantings, you can be picky and guide
and prune runners and thin plants. I find it easiest to let
them go wild, but each fall I take out every other 2′-wide
row (starting with the original parent plants the fall of
their fruiting year; the next year taking out their
offspring in the rows to each side of the originals and so
on, alternating every year). Though it sounds wasteful,
this is the best way to have good strawberry crops year
after year. Rototill the soil in a good 18″-wide band even
if a lot of berry plants are jerked on still-strong runners
from the fruiting beds to each side. Plants remaining will
have the bare ground to flower, fruit bountifully, and fill
the bare strips with vital new plants next year.

Set rhubarb root divisions into the soil so that the tops
of crowns are just visible. Place them two feet apart in
all directions. Don’t cut any stalks the first year. Next
year, pull (don’t cut, pull off from the base) only a few
large, fat stalks. Thereafter, you can pull fully grown fat
stalks till the June strawberries are gone by. The large
leaves are mildly toxic, so snap them off and leave them to
compost down around the parent plant. They go flat and make
a good weed deterring mulch.

Once leaves are fully grown in spring, plants produce a
large flowering stalk from the middle of the plant. It will
develop an obscene looking fist-sized (and shaped) lump of
a flower bud at the terminal end that will erupt into a
great ugly conical mass of blossoms if you let it.
Flowering is futile, wastes a great deal of plant energy,
and the whole plant looks droopy stemmed and exhausted in
its summer long afterglow. So, let the flowering stalk
develop till the bud is up at about leaf-top level. (The
plant will grow another if you pinch it out too early. May
try anyway.) Cut it out at the base. The plant will grow
lustily all summer, produce profusely next spring. Of
course, it will get all pouty and try to flower again next
summer and you’ll have to dampen its ardor again.

Harvest

The first growing year, don’t pick anything. Leave
asparagus, strawberries, horseradish, and rhubarb to grow
and accumulate strength in their roots. Pick blossoms from
strawberry plants and flowering stalks from rhubarb.

The second year, strawberry plants come into full
production, so harvest them all. You can cut a few fat,
plump asparagus and rhubarb stalks, but just a few. Keep
them, ends in water, in the refrigerator and they’ll last
till all plants have contributed. Let the rest of the
stalks go to leaf.

The third year, pick away. A fully grown asparagus plant
produces perhaps 10 spears a year to reach its half-pound
output…the first set of thick spears up to 2″ at base and
1/2″ at top, and a second set that is under 1″ at base,
3/8″ at top. You can safely harvest five or six spears per
plant over four weeks. After that, the plant needs to make
fronds to store. Spears should be harvested when they are 6
to 8 inches high, while buds on the ends are still tightly
wrapped.

Pencil-thick, hard stalks should never be cut, as they
indicate that the plant is reacting to stress and needs all
the strength it can gather. This “pencil-grass” is too
tough to eat anyway.

You can use a long handled V-blade dandelion weeder as an
asparagus knife, and cut off spears several inches below
ground. Problem is you are buying a lot of garbage; the end
of each spear is bleached white, woody, and inedible and
usually gets thrown out. Better to harvest only the edible
portion, leaving the below ground ends to recycle naturally
and return to the soil. Poke your fingers an inch or so
down into the soil beside each spear and snap it off
briskly with your thumb. Where the spear just naturally
breaks is a comfortable 1/2 inch or so above where the
woodiness begins.

Harvest rhubarb stalks so long as they keep growing out fat
and juicy, or till the flower stalk appears and leaves
begin turning red at the ends. Every few years is a good
time to divide rhubarb. In early spring, cut off one or two
quart jar size chunks of root from the larger specimens and
plant them out or give them to friends. Any plants that
have lost vigor and quit producing really fat spears each
spring should be removed and new cuttings planted into
fresh compost in their place.

In late fall (of the year you planted the cuttings, don’t
let them grow a second year) after a good frost or two, is
the time to harvest your horseradish. I dig up the entire
bed with a garden fork, shake the roots free of soil, and
lop off the leaves. Thick, well-proportioned roots are
stored in the cold cellar for peeling and grating as
needed. Any so gnarly as to be unusable roots or any with
soft spots or other apparent rot are saved to be cut up for
replanting. The soil in the bed is forked well and mixed
with enough compost or top soil to replace plant material
removed. I replant the saved cuttings and mulch with the
leaves from parent roots just dug up. Horseradish gives a
lot for very little care in return.

Disease and Pests

The best medicine against problems of all kinds is
prevention. Weeds can choke out the bed and bugs will
hibernate at the base of the plants, so in the spring of
each year cultivate any bare ground shallowly to expose bug
larvae and sprouted weed seeds. In summer of the first
year, once the soil dries out, snug mulch around asparagus
fronds, berry, rhubarb, and horseradish plants to keep
weeds down. Hand pull large weeds that poke through.

You will see rust, malformed stalks with brown-tinged
lesions around the base, on a few asparagus plants, but the
stalks are still delicious and most varieties are resistant
enough that it won’t do significant harm. In the heat of
summer some years, the fronds will host a considerable
gathering of asparagus beetles–colorful little red
and black semi-hard-shelled bugs that are quick to flee and
hard to catch in the heat of day. In my experience, the
little stinkers sleep away from home (they dig into the
mulch, I’m told) and don’t come looking for food till the
sun is up. I’ve never noticed that they do much harm to
fronds (that are old enough by the time the beetles arrive
that they’ve about done their job of reinvigorating the
roots for next year’s crop), so I’ve never worried about
them. However, I do compost burn the top mulch and old
fronds each fall.

If I ever do see the beetles threatening severe damage,
rather than lose the planting I would compromise my organic
principles and apply a USDA-approved, short-lived chemical
insecticide advertised as effective against hard-bodied
insects. Since the rhubarb and asparagus crops are already
in and the new horseradish won’t be dug till fall, I
wouldn’t worry about getting poison on anything edible.

If the leaves on your strawberry plants turn red well
before frost, and/or if the berry plants pull out of the
soil too easily and roots look wet, dead, or puny, and/or
production falls off precipitously, you have a rust or rot
problem. The only cure is to overhaul the bed. To be
honest, relocating it to fresh soil for several years is
best. Otherwise, after hard frost, uproot all the
strawberry plants and burn them in a fire along with all
old mulch and leaves. Plant the bed to a “green manure”
crop such as winter wheat and till it in before the
asparagus gets started in early spring.

Now, on the bare ground, let nature take its course and
kill out the strawberry diseases by letting it go
semifallow for a season. I grub out all burdock, grasses,
and other persistent weeds, till shallowly between the
asparagus several times during the year (before any weeds
can go to seed), and finally burn the plot off in the fall.
Burn again in spring just before tilling in fresh compost
and lime and replanting a new lot of strawberry plants. I’m
sure to purchase an especially disease-resistant strain
from a different company than where I got the diseased
stock.

Fall Care

After the tall greenery turns brown in the fall, pull mulch
away from the borders and, if you’ve not edged the entire
bed, dig out sod where it has encroached at the sides.
Spread compost or rotted manure and till or hand cultivate
shallowly.

Asparagus fronds are tough and don’t rototill in very well.
Also, they can harbor bug eggs that will happily
overwinter, tilled into the ground or not. I like to go
down the rows and, using an old (but sharp) hook-bladed
linoleum-cutting knife, grub out all the old fronds as far
below ground as I can cut. I toss them at the base of a
fresh compost pile along with any corn stalks and tough
broccoli and sunflower stems still left in the garden. Or,
I save them to be burned, and the ashes scattered back on
the land. (If stacked up off the soil beside the outdoor
fireplace where I boil off maple sap, these woody stems dry
out under the snow and make great sugaring off fire
kindling.)

Then, I go down the rows and lightly rake old mulch and
dead berry plant leaves off of the alternate rows that
contain the new-generation strawberry plants and mound it
over the old plant rows. Then I till it in very well (old
berry plants and all) or (better) burn it and then till. A
good sprinkling of composted manure mixed with soiled
stable bedding goes on the fruiting bed. Finally, over the
whole plot, I scatter six inches of loose salt hay, a type
of grass that is harvested from coastal salt marshes, so it
lacks inland weed seeds. It is expensive inland but you can
use wheat or rye straw. Don’t mulch with regular hay unless
it is old and half rotten. New hay is full of weed seed and
will turn your asparagus bed to what we call a “hay-mowing”
here in New England. Lacking a natural mulch, the asparagus
bed is one place I’d recommend spending the money for
ground peanut shells, corncobs, shredded bark, or other
organic mulch.

The asparagus and new berry crowns will push right up
through your mulch in the spring, and it will keep the new
berries away from soil-borne rots. Be sure to sprinkle on
limestone some time during the year to neutralize the acid
content of mulch as it rots down, bark especially. To
spread out the harvest, you can pull mulch away from crowns
of half the strawberry plants as soon in the spring as you
can. Sun will warm the soil and those plants will fruit a
few days earlier than the rest.

During the fall overhaul, I also pull out and compost old
horseradish and rhubarb leaves and scatter any leftover
compost or manure over the dormant crowns. But I’m sure to
be careful of next year’s rhubarb buds that often break the
soil in fall. Then it’s just a matter of waiting out the
winter, confident that, in a carefully prepared bed, and
after judicious harvest and good fall “putting to bed,” the
asparagus, strawberry, rhubarb, and new horseradish roots
are preparing to gift us with a bountiful harvest next
year.

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