Spring’s Sentinels: How to Grow and Cook Asparagus and Chives

Both asparagus and chives are easy to grow, and because they appear at the same time, they’re natural kitchen companions. If you’ve wondered how to cook asparagus or how to use chive blossoms, here are some spring recipes to try.

| April/May 2015

  • Asparagus and Chives
    A harvest basket filled with asparagus and chives signifies the start of spring.
    Photo by Barbara Damrosch
  • Asparagus Stalks
    Use a sharp knife to cut 6- to 8-inch asparagus stalks at ground level to avoid injuring the asparagus crowns.
    Photo by Barbara Damrosch

  • Asparagus and Chives
  • Asparagus Stalks

When the first asparagus shoots come up in our Maine garden in early May, it’s a big event. If I see one first, I keep quiet, the better to surprise everybody a few days later with a handful of fresh, young spears. With few vegetables ready to pick at that time, they’re a rare gift after winter’s long wait — so ephemeral, so effortless.

Growing Asparagus

Like any perennial crop, asparagus needs to be well established from the start, in a deeply cultivated bed well amended with compost or manure. Add lime as needed if your soil is acidic — asparagus prefers a soil pH of 6.5 to 7.5. You can grow asparagus from seed, but many gardeners find it more convenient to buy year-old dormant crowns from a local nursery or feed store. Plant them in spring in an 8-inch-deep trench, spreading out the crowns’ tentacle-like roots and covering them with 4 inches of soil. As the shoots grow, fill the trench the rest of the way. In our garden, we have two long rows 4 feet apart, with the plants set 2 feet apart in the rows. Fully grown, they form a backdrop for the garden, far enough from other crops that the fronds don’t shade any nearby plants, even when the ferny tops have grown to a mature 5 feet tall.

After planting, resist the temptation to pick the first-year spears that come up. The plants need to build up their strength for three years before they are harvestable. (Well, OK, you can steal a few in year two.)

Asparagus season, for a mature planting, lasts six weeks. After that you must stop picking and let the foliage grow in order to nourish the roots. But before the six-week cutoff you can — and should — use a sharp knife to cut any spear at ground level when it reaches 6 to 8 inches. That will keep production going. As the stems grow, the little overlapping scales at the tips will start to open in an effort to make branches, but try to pick them while the scales are tightly closed. That’s when the spears taste best. The fresher, the better: If possible, pick asparagus at mealtime, on the way to the stove. But if you must hold it, store spears upright in the refrigerator with the cut ends in a glass of water. You can eat asparagus raw, but the heat of cooking brings out more of its flavor.

Maintenance of your asparagus bed is crucial. It’s an easy thing to neglect when so many summer crops need tending, but weeds must not be allowed to take hold. A thick mulch of hay, straw or seaweed (which asparagus loves) will minimize annual weeds, add fertility as it decomposes, and give protection in winter, but it will not deter witchgrass, dandelions, wild blackberries and other stubborn invaders. If any of these become established, they’re hard to grub out without damaging the asparagus roots. You may need to brush aside the mulch to get the weeds out, but keep at it.

Adequate moisture is needed to ensure an abundant crop the following year, so irrigation in dry weather is important, too. It’s often necessary to support the plants when they become tall. I use 4-foot grade stakes, available at lumberyards and hardware stores, strung together with jute twine. Steel T-posts also work well.

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