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.
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.
Planting and tending an asparagus bed is admittedly a more ambitious project than sowing a row of lettuce, but people who commit to it find that the investment of time pays off in years of harvests. Consider it a landscape feature as well as great food. At summer’s end the foliage will turn a handsome gold before it’s time to cut it back to the ground for the winter, top dress with compost or manure, and reapply a thick mulch. And, at last, there’s that magical day in spring when the asparagus wakes up again.
Simplicity is best, and brevity is essential. The tips of spears are fragile and will fall apart if overcooked. The stems are a little sturdier, and you’ll sometimes want to peel extra-thick ones, or even pare them down a bit, so they all cook uniformly. I try to pick them at — or trim them to — about 6 inches long.
My favorite cooking method is to steam asparagus over simmering water for 8 minutes (more or less, depending on size), or until just tender when pricked with the tip of a knife — not mushy and not hard. The spears will bend but not droop when you pick them up from the middle, and can be easily cut with a fork. Often I’ll butter the warm spears, and serve them just like that. Or, I’ll blanch them by plunging the spears immediately into a sink filled with cold water for just a second or two to stop the cooking, but not to chill them. This will help the spears retain their bright green color if they’re not going to be eaten for a little while. Try grilled asparagus, too, or roast it in the oven with garlic and olive oil.
After a week or two of buttered asparagus heaven, a cook might like to branch out and make composed salads, such as the one with shrimp below. You can also serve asparagus on toast, or in rice pilafs and risottos, or in endless pasta dishes, from primavera with other early vegetables to a cheesy rigatoni. A creamy sauce, a lemony sauce, a Mornay sauce, a hollandaise — asparagus wears all of these very well. You can tuck asparagus into an omelet, add it to a stir-fry, simmer it in a soup, or bake it in a quiche or a gratin. Asparagus will keep for a week in the fridge and can even be frozen, but I prefer the fresh-picked, six-week orgy during which this vegetable truly shines.
Many fresh herbs go well with asparagus, especially chives, which are also permanent residents of the garden, popping up early with stunning greenness. Outdoors, they are prolific (often self-sowing close to the mother clump) and keep going all summer and fall. For harvest, scissors are the tool of choice, and it’s easy to gather and cut a bundle of the slender leaves, discard any that have turned yellow or brown, and then snip into tidy little segments. Cutting the clumps back periodically keeps them fresher and neater, but I do let some of the chives blossom, and then cut the plant back after that.
The flowers are lovely, violet globes that provide nectar for bees and garnishes for cooks. To brighten up a dish, I pluck individual florets from the globes and scatter them over the top. Chive blossoms have a very strong onion flavor, and a whole head consumed at once would be too much of a good thing.
If you have a lot of chives, experiment with using them as a vegetable in their own right. For instance, instead of dotting a cold soup, such as vichyssoise, with minced chives, drop in a few handfuls before puréeing, to give it an assertive flavor and a bright green color.
Indoors, chives are a disappointment to grow. The plant’s sensitivity to day length makes it go dormant when the days are short. Any that I’ve brought in have attracted whiteflies as well. The crop can be either frozen or dried, though, without a total loss of flavor and color. In both cases, snip them into sprinkling-sized lengths, and spread on parchment paper on a cookie sheet. Dry at your oven’s lowest setting until crisp, or freeze for 30 minutes. Use the paper to funnel them into tightly sealed jars or freezer bags.
Esteemed garden writer Barbara Damrosch farms and writes with her husband, Eliot Coleman, at Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine. Find even more asparagus recipes in her latest book, The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.
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