Asparagus was one of the first things I planted when I established my garden in the mid-70s. The 35-foot asparagus bed still provides enough to eat, pickle and sell at the farmers market, despite former neighbors who did not appreciate my attempt to create an edible landscape.
Thinking they would help eradicate the “weeds” I’d overlooked, the neighbors mowed, chopped and trampled my plants to the ground. But my hardy asparagus was determined and comes back year after year.
Every spring, my established bed produces pounds of tender spears for more than a six-week season, proof that a good asparagus bed will last 20 years or more.
I was new to gardening in the 70s. I chose and planted an heirloom variety called Mary Washington that has both male and female plants. The female plants produce bright red berries in the fall. They are toxic to humans, but birds love them.
My asparagus yield has expanded through the years because birds have dropped seeds beneath fence posts and trees. Decades later, I am still determined to make my yard an edible landscape, and I have allowed the volunteer plants to flourish where they emerged.
Today, gardeners plant all-male cultivars that tend to out-produce the old-fashioned asparagus plants. They do not produce fruit, which means the stored nutrients go into making larger spears. Male plants will produce earlier in the spring, and the yield can be three times greater than female counterparts.
Every spring, I notice asparagus plants along the nearby road and railways. I suspect they, too, have originated from my garden. I imagine myself as the local Euell Gibbons as I “stalk the wild asparagus,” able to add foraged asparagus to my cultivated harvests.
Asparagus has an interesting history. It was gathered from the wild in the British Isles during prehistoric times. In 1551, William Turner wrote asparagus was a common garden plant. Later, it became one of the most popular plants, and gardeners recognized it could be improved through cultivation. King Louis XIV planted 6,000 asparagus plants in the Palace of Versailles kitchen garden.
By the middle of the 17th century, asparagus had been introduced into North America, where it became as well liked as it was in England.
Asparagus was grown on plantations along the James River and in Williamsburg, Virginia. As early as 1683, gardeners were forcing asparagus by growing it in piles of manure covered by a thick layer of soil.
By the 18th century, forcing asparagus was a common practice that proved to be quite profitable since the enjoyment of out-of-season asparagus was considered a rarity and a luxury.
Archaeologists in Colonial Williamsburg have uncovered four asparagus pits lined with broken wine bottles, ceramic shards, oyster shells and animal bones. During the 18th century, it was a common practice to line trenched beds, because gardeners believed this would allow the roots to deeply penetrate the soil beneath, which would prevent poor production should drought occur.
Asparagus is an excellent addition to the home garden. Preparations do not need to be as elaborate as the ones unearthed in Williamsburg.
There is a noticeable difference in spears that have been picked from the garden and those that can be found year-round at the supermarket, aptly described by the highly respected food writer Elaine Lemm as, “Taut, rigid and lifeless as a three-day-old corpse.”
Generally, the bottom portion of store-bought asparagus must be discarded because it is too tough to chew. Homegrown stalks will break above the toughest point.
If you have never tried fresh-from-the-garden asparagus, do not allow the global marketplace to rob you of one of the greatest seasonal experiences. Tender homegrown asparagus, now available at West Virginia farmers markets, provides an opportunity to reap the enjoyment of this delicacy that has been enjoyed throughout history.
Susan Maslowski founded and operates the Mud River Pottery studio in Milton, where she has created utilitarian ware for nearly 40 years. She sells produce at the Putnam Farmers Market, serves on the board of the West Virginia Farmers Market Association and The Wild Ramp, and is an advocate for local foods and farmers. She also writes the Farmer’s Table cooking column for the Gazette-Mail’s Metro section. Susan can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Egg and Asparagus Salad
Makes 4 servings.
2 hard-boiled eggs
3 radishes, sliced
2 ounces Parmesan cheese, shredded
salt and pepper
Toasted Walnut Vinaigrette (recipe follows)
Wash asparagus and remove any woody stems.
Blanch asparagus in salted water until tender but still slightly firm, about 4 minutes.
Put ice cubes and cool water in a large bowl. Plunge asparagus into ice water quickly to stop cooking. Drain and set aside.
Place asparagus spears on a plate.
Top with egg and radish slices.
Season with salt and pepper.
Top with Parmesan cheese.
Drizzle with Toasted Walnut Vinaigrette.
Toasted Walnut Vinaigrette
Whisk together ¼ cup walnut oil (or olive oil), 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar, 1 ½ teaspoons lemon juice, ½ teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon chopped toasted walnuts.
Thai Asparagus Soup
3 pounds asparagus
2 tablespoons oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 tablespoons finely minced lemongrass
3 tablespoons finely chopped ginger
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 can coconut milk
4-5 cups chicken or vegetable broth
½ teaspoon fresh lime juice
Cut asparagus into ½-inch pieces.
Cook onion in oil in a heavy pan over moderately low heat, stirring until softened, about 10 minutes.
Add lemongrass and ginger and continue cooking for about 3 minutes.
Add asparagus pieces, salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes.
Add coconut milk and broth.
Simmer, covered, for 15 minutes.
Puree soup in batches in a blender until smooth.
Return soup to the pot. If too thick, add another cup of broth. Heat soup to warm.
Add lime juice. Serve, garnished with steamed asparagus tips, cilantro or chives.
Bloody Mary Asparagus
Frozen and canned asparagus turns to mush. Pickled asparagus remains crisp, and is my favorite way to preserve spring’s bounty.
This recipe will yield 2 pints, depending on the size of the asparagus spears. The recipe can be doubled.
1 pound asparagus
2 cups white vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon canning salt
2 teaspoons horseradish
2 teaspoons hot sauce
1 teaspoon black pepper, cracked
½ teaspoon celery seed
Trim the asparagus to the height of your jars.
Simmer vinegar, water and salt until salt is dissolved.
Pack the jars with trimmed spears. (Place your jars on their side to make packing the asparagus easier.)
Divide the spices evenly between jars. When jars are packed, pour the warmed vinegar over the asparagus until the jar is filled to within 1/2 inch of the top.
Process 10 minutes in hot water bath.