Slicing spears of Asparagus from your own pampered patch feels like mining garden treasure. There are few vegetables as revered as the elegant Asparagus spear, once savored only by the world's most elite upper crust. When the seasonal Asparagus harvest comes in, we're ready with special menus designed to showcase and celebrate fresh Asparagus bounty. No store bought spear could ever compare to those grown yourself. Their innate sweetness, flavor and texture are the pinnacle of Asparagus ambrosia, regardless of its preparation: raw, steamed, braised, stir-fried, roasted or grilled.
Botanically known as Asparagus officinalis, a herbaceous flowering perennial, Asparagus has been cultivated for culinary and medicinal purposes since 3000 BC in Europe, western Asia and northern Africa. Prized for its delicate flavor and diuretic properties, Asparagus was also held in high esteem as an aphrodisiac. In France, Asparagus tips were referred to as the points d'amour~the love tips. According to gastronomic historians, Asparagus cultivation did not begin until the mid 19th century in America. Packed with phytonutrients that help our bodies resist toxins, reduce inflammation and cleanse itself, Asparagus is one of nature's most perfect foods. Low in calories, Asparagus is about 90% water yet packed with Vitamins A, B6, C and K, calcium, magnesium, zinc, potassium, dietary fiber and even protein.
Purple, Green or Both?
Purple Passion Asparagus yields beautiful, deep burgundy-purple spears that have a sweeter taste than common Asparagus. This prized hybrid is far more productive than older, heirloom varieties. Freshly picked Purple Passion spears are so tender that you can eat them raw, when their color is the most amazing, and their flavor incredibly luscious. Once cooked, Purple Passion fades to pale purple, and then to green, with a nutty-sweet flavor and a delicate, dense-silky texture. Introduced by the University of California in 1978, Luscious Green Asparagus, formally named UC 157, produces loads of early, tasty dark green spears without purple pigmentation. Unlike most green varieties, its straight, tight, tapering heads are dependable even in temperate climates and high heat.
A Patch for Decades of Easy Asparagus
Growing Asparagus is easy and most rewarding~everyone should have their own patch. Getting an Asparagus patch established requires a little patience, but the payoff is huge: bushels of the best, free Asparagus every spring for the next 20, 30 or even 40 years. Just 20 mature plants will yield more than enough Asparagus for a family of four.
Starting Asparagus Seed
The key to a great Asparagus patch is good soil, vigilant weed control and well pampered Asparagus seedlings. We prefer to start Asparagus seed indoors in advance so we can really pamper the little guys. Soak Asparagus seed for 24 hours in just tepid water. Sow the seed 1 to 2 inches deep in moist, sterile seed starting mix six weeks before your spring Frost-Free Date. The bottom warmth of a seed starting mat (between 60 and 70 degrees F) will help speed germination. Once the seeds have sprouted, give them 12 to 15 hours of bright light each day; moderate, uniformly moist soil; and good ventilation. Plants grown on a windowsill get leggy and flop over as they stretch for the light: normal daylight length and intensity is insufficient no matter how bright the spot~you really should use fluorescent or grow lights.
The Asparagus Nursery
While you are growing the little seedlings indoors (or before you direct-sow outside if you choose to do so), prepare a little outdoor Asparagus nursery. It's essential that the nursery be completely weed-free since the toddler seedlings will be rather small. Select a little spot with well-draining, sandy loam that is rich in organic matter in full to partial sunlight. Before transplanting your Asparagus seedlings into their cozy little nursery, harden them off by putting them outdoors in a sheltered location for a few hours each day, and bringing them in at night. Do this for a week to 10 days, gradually lengthening the time outdoors. This will help them to avoid transplant shock and to thrive. No matter how warm you think it may be, hold off transplanting until after your spring Frost-Free Date when night time temperatures are reliably above 55 degrees F. To find the Frost-Free Date for your garden, go HERE and use the chart provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Select your State from the pull down menu to generate a PDF file with a list of local NOAA data collection sites.
Space the little seedlings in a grid pattern 3 to 5 inches apart in their prepared nursery. Encourage vigorous root growth by pampering them with plenty of water and a monthly dose of liquid fertilizer. At the end of the season, when the fronds turn yellow, cut them back to 3 inches tall.
The Permanent Patch
You can gently transplant the adolescent seedlings this fall, or next spring. If you aren't going to transplant them until next spring, you can prepare your permanent Asparagus patch in a spot with full to partial sunlight and well-draining sandy loam that is rich in organic matter by digging in 4 inches of rotted manure. If you are going to transplant the seedlings this fall, dig in 4 to 6 inches of aged compost instead, and incorporate an all-purpose organic fertilizer since Asparagus is a heavy feeder. Phosphorus, which promotes strong root growth, doesn't move through the soil as easily as other nutrients, so this is your best opportunity to get it into the root zone where plants can reach it. Transplant the seedlings 10 to 15 inches apart with the crown of each plant positioned about 6 inches below the soil surface. Cover the roots and about 1" of the stem. As the plants grow, gradually fill in the holes. By the end of the season, the soil surface in the bed should be level.
Consistent soil moisture is important for good Asparagus production, and watering is especially important during the first three to five years of growth. Asparagus will not tolerate weed competition, especially from grass. Asparagus root systems grow to be large and dense, and you don't want any weeds tangled within them. It's almost impossible to dig them out, so prevention is the best strategy. Keep your Asparagus bed mulched with shredded leaves, straw or other organic mulch and send in the weed patrol regularly.
When your Asparagus plants have been in their permanent home for two years, you may sneak in and harvest a couple spears from each plant. The following year, harvest the plants clean for two weeks, and then let the rest of the spears grow. Each year, add another week to the harvest season until you are up to a six or eight-week harvest. When the plants start producing spears that are less than a half inch in diameter, it's time to stop harvesting. Remember that with homegrown Asparagus, the diameter of the spear has no bearing on quality. Spears that are thicker than your thumb are just as tender as the skinny ones. Spears should be harvested when they are 6 to 7 inches high by cutting them at soil level with a sharp knife, without injury to the roots, and before the buds on the tips begin to loosen and open, or fern out.
After the harvest season has ended, allow the spears to develop into ferny fronds. Continue to keep the bed weeded, mulched and watered. In early fall, the fronds will turn yellow. Cut them to the ground and remove them from the area to keep pests like the Asparagus beetle from overwintering.
Passionate About Asparagus
We could eat Asparagus morning, noon and night. For brunch, we concocted Asparagus-Celeriac Benedict. For lunch, one could enjoy the most sublime Asparagus Bisque with a Parsnip Flan created by the Still River Cafe in Eastford, CT.
Raw, freshly cut Asparagus is terrific in crudité platters with dips. Lightly steamed and chilled spears are magnificent wrapped in Boursin-coated Black Forrest ham in Asparagus Rollups. For dinner, there is nothing more appealing than Asparagus and Lemon Risotto with Shaved Reggiano, courtesy of Maria Helm Sinskey's cookbook, The Vineyard Kitchen, or our easy Asparagus Oven Pancake. It is wonderful shaved raw in salads, chunk cut into hot or cold pasta dishes, and Asian stir-fries. Chico Hot Springs Resort's grilled Vegetable Tower is an awesome sight to behold. Roasted Asparagus takes on an entirely different personality, as does grilled Asparagus. Yet our favorite Asparagus side is our easy Asparagus Raft.
Restaurants all over Holland celebrate the Asparagus season with joyous fanfare heralding special white Asparagus menus. White Asparagus is the same botanical species as green Asparagus, but the spears are hilled over to blanch them pearl-white while growing. We love the classic Dutch Asparagus presentation: steamed Asparagus spears topped with butter, an optional spritz of lemon juice and plentiful chopped hard boiled eggs served with boiled, peeled new Potatoes, slices of really good ham rolled into thick tubes, and, of course, more butter or Hollandaise sauce.