The thing about growing asparagus is, if you think you might be craving a plate of the supple steamy spears smothered in cheese sauce on a warm Spring day three or four years from now, you should get it in the ground today. Because that’s how long it takes to sweet-talk an asparagus seedling from the garden to the stove. Delayed gratification is what asparagus is all about. If that sounds daunting, let me lay out a path for you—a path I traveled.
1. Choose a spot. Set aside a full day in April for asparagus planting. Before you actually acquire your asparagus, flip open your gardening guidebook and read that asparagus prefers plenty of sunshine. Head out to your garden, the sunniest spot in your yard. Turn slowly in circles while scanning the possibilities. Refer back to your guidebook and learn that asparagus doesn’t like to be disturbed. Give a sideways glance at the clucking chickens on the other side of the fence, and remember that you employ the scavenging avians as a garden clean-up crew every Fall and that their tiny brains would not discriminate between discarded zucchinis and delicate asparagus fronds. Reluctantly decide against the garden. Search in vain for another sunny spot. Weigh out the options: Plant them in full shade, or leave the asparagus vulnerable to the ravages of voracious chickens. Choose what you believe to be the lesser of two evils, and select two towering oak trees, away from the chickens, to be row markers. You can’t afford to take chances with your asparagus.
2. Prepare the bed. Till a swath about three feet wide and ten feet long, removing branches, rocks, and roots as you go. With your spade, dig a trench down the middle of the bed, 10 inches deep. Read in your guide-book that this trench should be filled with several inches of fertilizer, and discover a way for your chickens to be useful after all. Fill your wheelbarrel with shovelfuls of manure from their coop, stir it up with some dirt to work out the lumps and soggy bits, and line your trench with it.
3. Acquire the asparagus. Call up a friend who has already mastered the fine art of growing asparagus and who would be willing to share some of the wispy ferns that shoot up around the mother plant each Spring. Show up at his house with your spade and bucket, and meander through the obligatory garden tour. Fulfill your end of the bargain by gushing over the early perennials scattered throughout his yard. Arrive (finally) at the asparagus patch and patiently listen to an espresso-induced string of stories about asparagus. When he finally turns to the task at hand, help him dig up the delicate shoots and place them carefully into your bucket. Accept your friend’s offer of a beer, and make yourself comfortable on the deck to listen to a string of beer-induced stories about asparagus, gardening, and beer. Find yourself wishing you were laying your newly dug treasures in the ground, and quietly resign yourself to planting your asparagus the next day instead.
4. Plant the asparagus. Wake up early the next day, giddy with excitement. Using water from the rain barrel, fill the previously dug trench with water and let it soak into the ground. Carefully extract one fragile fern from your bucket and place it ever-so-gently into the trough, the roots sitting on the wet manure-and-soil mixture. Continue down the row, placing the stalks eight or ten inches apart. Cover the roots of the plants evenly with about two inches of soil and pack it down lightly. The base of the trench should now be about four inches below ground level. Kneel down beside your asparagus in a silent prayer of gratitude and hope, already imagining the fruitfulness of your labor.
5. Monitor growth. As soon as the sun rises the next morning, hurry outside to check on your asparagus. Note that nothing has changed—they haven’t grown. Caress each one gently with your fingertips, and whisper words of encouragement. Repeat this obsessive behavior every day for the next week. Catch your young children and the dog making their way close to the asparagus and sternly corral them into another part of the yard.
By Day 8, notice that your asparagus has grown about half an inch. Fill the trench with a half-inch layer of dirt. Continue to add layers of soil as your asparagus grows over the Summer, until the trench is filled and even with the ground around it.
6. Prepare for Winter. In late Fall, cover the ground with an inch of chicken manure, the nutritious goodness of which will seep down into your asparagus roots. On top of the manure, mulch around the plants with straw or leaves to keep them warm and protected through the Winter. Place your hands on the bark of the oak trees and thank them for watching over your asparagus’s first Summer of growth.
1. Assess Winter survival. In early Spring, go out to your asparagus patch each day to check if the snow is melting. Celebrate a small patch of black dirt peering through the snow. Go back every few days as this porthole to your dreams grows wider. By the end of March, notice some feathery fronds poking through the dirt. Go down on your knees and scan the ground for clues of a genuine asparagus spear pushing through the surface. Continue this fervent practice daily, until one morning you discover your very first purple tip tentatively making its way through the layers of dirt and manure. Gasp in delight, as if you have just laid a golden egg. Share the exciting news with your family and realize they are not as elated with this news as you think they should be.
2. Year Two maintenance. Review your gardening guidebook and learn that the asparagus patch should be kept free of weeds. Meticulously pull each sprouting acorn, every sprig of sarsaparilla, and handfuls of chickweed until the asparagus stands out bright and green against the black dirt. Repeat this never-ending task weekly through the Summer. In addition to keeping your children and dog away from the garden, you have now acquired a new enemy, Diablo the rooster, who has learned to scale the chicken fence. Don’t be intimidated by his pompous posture and cocky crowing. Keep him away from your asparagus at all costs. Use threatening implements, if necessary.
3. Monitor growth. Detect six or eight additional spears popping up, and observe how quickly they grow. Refer to your gardening guidebook and read—over and over and over—the sentence that clearly states: “Do not pick asparagus spears the first year.” Repeat out loud your long-term goal of having a thriving asparagus patch. Swallow the saliva filling your cheeks and resist the temptation to try just one spear. By the end of May, admit to yourself that of the twelve or so shoots that you planted last year, only three or four are producing actual asparagus spears. The rest are just spreading more ferny foliage. Lie awake at night to worry that you have not chosen the best environment for your asparagus. Worry that they’re not getting enough sun. Worry that they do not prefer the type of soil around oak trees. Worry about everything.
4. Stay the course. On one of your weekly grocery shopping outings, catch a glimpse of the neatly bundled asparagus in the produce aisle. Stare at them blankly, and ask yourself why you are putting so much emotional and physical energy into growing asparagus when you could buy all you need for a meal for $5.99. Chastise yourself for these unfaithful thoughts, and buy a head of broccoli instead. Watch the ferny foliage grow four or five feet tall over the course of the next few months, and reassure yourself that the spears will come next year.
1. Assess Winter survival. After the snow has melted, go out to check on your asparagus. Congratulate yourself when you see that the ferny foliage is already fuller than the year before. Check again a week later. Examine the ground carefully. See that the spears are poking through in the same places they did last year, as well as out of two or three additional plants. Try to be optimistic about this, while secretly feeling discouraged about how long it is taking for your asparagus to become established.
2. Year Three maintenance. Suspect that your asparagus is not getting enough sun. Yell at your husband for having the audacity to allow the oaks to grow beside the asparagus. Threaten to cut them down. This will accomplish two things. One, you know your husband—who would only let the oaks be cut down over his dead body—will respond with the voice of reason. Two, in your heart you know you are caught in the maternal struggle of wanting your baby asparagus to thrive while recognizing the moral catastrophe of cutting down hundred-year-old oak trees. By letting your husband make the call, you can appease your conscience on both sides and still have someone to blame. Continue your daily, almost futile effort of keeping weeds, children, dog, and rooster at bay.
3. Monitor growth. Watch the lanky spears grow quickly and dare to entertain fantasies of preparing succulent asparagus appetizers wrapped in bacon and pastry, and roasted asparagus with garlic and parmesan, paired with lemony salmon.
4. Stay the course. Make the mistake of visiting another friend’s home and taking the garden tour. Come across a bush in the middle of her garden, thick and full, that looks vaguely familiar, like a scrawny classmate from elementary school who has grown up, filled out, and produced a full beard. Admit to yourself that it is an asparagus plant, looking like asparagus really should look when it’s grown up. Drag yourself home with your head hanging down, and decide that your floundering asparagus plants are still not established enough to do a real picking. When nobody is looking, break off one (only one) stalk and bite into the sweet, crispy-tender spear, savoring it like a cigarette behind the barn.
1. Assess Winter survival. On a sunny afternoon, after all the snow has melted and the geese are already nesting, stumble out to the asparagus patch. With hesitant hope, notice that the ferns are spreading, and that there are indeed several spears poking their purple heads out of the ground around each and every plant. Squeal in surprise and delight, and trigger an echoing response from Diablo in the chicken pen.
2. Year Four maintenance. Wrestle out two-year-old oak saplings, giant burdock, and other invaders that have completely gotten away on you. Feel ashamed of your neglect, and sprinkle some chicken manure around the plants in an effort to make amends. Raise a hoe towards Diablo, to remind him of his place.
3. Monitor growth. Check on your asparagus daily. Rejoice in the fact that they are growing quickly and are now several inches high. Sit down cross-legged beside the asparagus patch and gaze at your accomplishment. On Day Seven, gasp in awe that your asparagus is now six inches high and substantially meaty, and that there is enough to feed each of your family members a small portion. Run inside for a sharp knife and slice off ten or eleven spears close to ground level, thanking them for sacrificing their lives for your family. Nestle them in the palm of your hand as you carry them to the house, as though you are cradling a newborn baby.
4. Celebrate success. Rinse your asparagus in cold water, and set them aside on a plate to await your preparations. As you beam down at them, resist the temptation to mentally calculate the hundreds of dollars each spear cost you in time and labor. Think about your family only, and how much love they will feel as they devour the tasty treat. Whip up some of your favorite cheese sauce. Gently steam the asparagus spears until they are tender and bright green. Call the family to supper, registering surprise at your children’s wary faces. Close your eyes in blissful ignorance of the family surrounding you and sink your teeth into a sweet supple spear, its fresh Spring flavor bursting in your mouth, and filling your mind with visions of daffodils and songs of robins.
5. Cherish a dream realized. In your excitement, feel an impulse to share your success with the friend who gave you the young asparagus shoots in the first place. As you contemplate how to contact him, realize that since that asparagus-digging day in his yard many moons ago, he has left his wife, gotten a divorce, moved to BC, built a house, and gotten remarried.
A lot can happen in the time it takes to turn an asparagus dream into a reality. ❖