This year’s asparagus crop was later than usual.
We have a well-established bed. We harvest enough for our own use and have plenty to sell at the farmers market. Decades ago, when I started my bed, I knew nothing about asparagus, and I selected an heirloom variety that had both male and female plants.
Female plants produce a red berry that zaps energy from the plants, making them less productive. Today, most commercially grown asparagus comes from genetic male clones. One benefit resulting from my plant choice is that I now have asparagus growing in my rock garden and beneath every fence post where birds have dropped the berries.
Growing asparagus is quite easy and requires little care. Most people will purchase crowns instead of starting plants from seed. Once planted, you must be patient.
Asparagus plants will produce spindly slender spears the first year. The spears should not be picked, because they feed the underground crowns with energy synthesized from the sun.
The plants will become stronger by year two. While the temptation is great, the second-year spears should not be harvested. When the plants have reached the third year, they will have gained enough strength to produce healthy stalks that can be picked.
China is the leading world producer of asparagus, followed by Peru, then Germany. The United States ranks fifth. California, Washington and Michigan are the largest state producers. Oceana County in Michigan has proclaimed they are the asparagus capital of the world, and they host the National Asparagus Festival each June to celebrate the harvest.
Sadly, the war on drugs has caused a decline on American production, since the United States pays Peruvian farmers to grow asparagus instead of coca. The result is the global price of asparagus has gone down, resulting in an unprofitable market for American farmers.
Green asparagus is the most common type of asparagus sold in the U.S. Purple asparagus is a novel, genetic variety that turns green when cooked. I have a few purple plants. White asparagus is very common in Germany and other western European countries. I see fresh, white asparagus occasionally in local produce departments, but most of the white asparagus sold in the U.S. is a canned product.
White asparagus is basically albino spears from green asparagus. Emerging spears are covered with soil topped with a black cover to prevent sun rays from hitting the spears. The lack of sunlight results in the blanched stalks.
With advice from a German friend, I tried growing white asparagus one year. The process is labor-intensive, because the spears must be watched carefully and picked immediately when the tips peek through the mound of dirt.
White asparagus has a slightly different flavor from green. It is mild, but a little bitter. White asparagus tends to be more fibrous, so the bottom portion must be peeled. Green asparagus has a grassy flavor. Purple asparagus is nuttier and sweeter, because it has 20 percent more sugar in the stalks.
One of the biggest problems when growing asparagus is that weeds will take over the perennial beds. When that happens, the patch becomes untidy and the weeds will rob asparagus of nutrients. Some growers will mulch lightly with grass clippings or hay to keep weeds at bay.
Asparagus tolerates salinity better than most vegetables. While visiting an uncle in Titusville, Pennsylvania, I noticed he’d spread rock salt across his asparagus bed. It is an old-time method of managing weeds without the use of chemical herbicides.
When attending classes with experts on asparagus, I learned modern farmers frown on using the salt method to control weeds, because the runoff can affect adjacent plants, plus it may also cause other problems.
Asparagus is similar to corn in that the quality deteriorates quickly after picking, which is one reason I encourage people buy directly from the local farmer. There will also be less waste, since commercial growers cut the spears with a knife at ground level where the stalks are a bit tough. Gardeners or small farm growers will snap the spears, which will break just above the tough area avoiding any waste.
Asparagus is a nutritious and tasty addition to any diet. It’s low in calories and a great source of nutrients. Now is the time to enjoy some delicious, healthy homegrown asparagus.