Home-grown 'Purple Passion' asparagus emerging from the ground.
It’s a common misconception in the home gardening arena that asparagus is a crop that should never be started from seed. I am not sure when this became the standard dogma, but it is far from the actual truth. Asparagus is a crop that thrives when started from seed and those plants that are derived from home-grown stock tend to be larger and more robust than store-bought crowns.
My husband and I are co-owners of a small, diversified organic vegetable farm in Central Washington. We have been farming professionally for the last 10 years but before that time, we were avid home gardeners with an above average interest in homesteading. We first started asparagus from seed before we knew better. No one had ever told us that it couldn’t be done, so we tried it.
It all started when we purchased several very expensive crowns of a variety of asparagus known as 'Purple Passion'. We planted them in, what seemed to be, ideal soil conditions and allowed them to fully mature during the first season, forgoing the urge to harvest the gorgeous deep purple stems that began to erupt from the ground.
To our surprise, upon maturing, the asparagus took on a fern-like appearance and grew to a height of approximately 3 feet. At this point, we did not cut the plants back, hoping that this top growth would give the asparagus the opportunity to photosynthesize throughout the summer, creating enough food to allow the root mass to bulk up for a more robust crop the following season.
Upon observation in the fall, we noted that several of the crowns produced tops that were covered in small ball-like fruits (females). These fruits eventually matured from green to bright red. When we popped open these little ripe ‘berries’ we found that they contained several hard, black seeds. On a whim, we gathered up ‘berries’ from several different plants and brought them inside to dry.
It took weeks before all of the moisture dissipated enough to crack open the fragile skin and extract the seeds. We placed the seeds inside a small, clean glass jar and placed them in a cool and dark location until the spring.
Asparagus seed at maturity turns bright red and looks like little ‘berries.'
Our household budget was tight in those days — even tighter than it is now. We knew we wanted a very large patch of asparagus so that we could feed ourselves and our children without having to purchase it at the store. We also wanted to move toward organic and away from conventionally grown asparagus since large amounts of herbicide are used for grass control, the main competitor and chief weed on asparagus farms.
However, to purchase enough crowns to have as much asparagus as our household could eat (much less extra for pickling) would have been prohibitively expensive. And although it would have been possible to purchase a few crowns each season, eventually building up a large bed, we decided to go out on a limb and try and plant those little black seeds that we harvested from our own plants. Our results were surprising.
In February, my husband placed several of the small seeds on the surface of a 3.5-inch pot filled with standard potting soil. He lightly covered the seeds with a thin layer of sifted sand and then bottom watered each pot thoroughly.
There were two flats (18 of the 3.5-inch pots on each flat) in total that were potted up that day. The flats were placed on a heat table that kept the soil at approximately 65 to 75 degrees F. For the next few weeks, we tended our little pots, making sure they never dried out and that they stayed sufficiently warm.
Then, quite suddenly, a small batch of toothpick-thin stems began to poke their way out of the ground. Nearly every pot germinated with a smattering of 2-4 stems per pot. We kept the baby asparagus within these small pots for a little over 3 months, transplanting a majority of them outside at the end of May through the beginning of June.
Over the course of the summer, the asparagus settled in and eventually caught up to the crowns that had been planted the previous season!
Since we had run out of room to fit all of our new starts (there were nearly 36 of them from this first experimental planting), we left those that we could not fit in the ground in their 3.5-inch pots, cast aside in the shade next to our greenhouse. They were entirely neglected and ignored and completely forgotten about for a full year.
However, as spring arrived yet again, these little pots that had been allowed to completely dry out suddenly sprang back to life with the coming of the spring rains. Even after all of the trauma of neglect, they still continued to thrive. So, we made space for them and planted them out.
It has now been nearly 10 years since we first tried to grow asparagus from seed. Our bed is still producing and thriving. We only harvest the medium to large stems each season so that the small, pencil-thin stems can branch out and be the food producers for the crowns.
By following this method, we have never suffered from tired crowns of found the need to replace our original stock due to a drop in production. If anything, our harvest seems to increase season by season.
The asparagus in the group on the far right should not have been harvested and should have been allowed to mature and go to seed.
So my advice to you is that, if you love asparagus, forget what you have been told by all of the experts and be bold enough to start your own from seed. It is a rewarding experience and one worth attempting at least once in your gardening career.
Eron Drew is co-owner of Tierra Garden Organics and retreat center manager at Tierra Retreat Center. One of her most recent projects is founding FARMY-Food Army, an organization aimed at offering support to small and start-up farms in North Central Washington and fundraising for a future equipment co-op. If you would like to read more from Eron including essays, past garden-related articles and more, please visit her personal blog, Farmertopia, and find all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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