In October, I hosted 45 University of Tennessee Extension agents, nurserymen and landscape professionals to the Augusta area to tour some local nurseries, farms and parks. We visited some great farms, including two of our state’s largest nurseries in McDuffie County: McCorkle’s and Dudley’s.
Being a plant lover, it was fun to see literally millions of pots of landscape plants in the more than 1,000 acres these two wholesalers grow on. One of the most interesting potted plants that I was surprised to see growing in a 3-gallon container was asparagus. Coming from a design background, I couldn’t believe that I had never incorporated this feathery, fine-textured perennial vegetable into my landscape designs. So if you like gardening, make sure this one is on your list.
Asparagus is a hardy perennial that will provide feathery leaves to accent the garden, with the added bonus of delicious spears every spring once the plants are established. Choose a site for your asparagus in a bed with good drainage and full sun. Make sure to get all the weeds out of the bed when preparing, especially grassy weeds like bermuda grass and nut sedges.
Asparagus is bought as a “crown,” which is similar to what a daylily may look like without its leaves. Crowns are the 1-year-old asparagus roots typically sold in nurseries and garden centers. Although asparagus can be grown from seed, it’s difficult, time-consuming and will cost an extra year of growth before harvest is possible. Planting the crowns will allow you to collect an abbreviated harvest in the spring of the second year of growth.
This vegetable will grow 4- to 5-foot-tall ferns, so it may shade other plants. Install the new plants on the northern side of the bed. Prepare the bed as early as possible, and enrich it with manure, compost, bone or blood meal, leaf mold, or a combination of several of these. Make sure the pH is between 5.8 and 6.5 to ensure the plants can properly take in nutrients.
Planting crowns can be done November to mid-March. Although asparagus takes two to three years to begin production, it will be highly productive for seven to eight years.
Recommended cultivars include the Yankee-themed Jersey Giant, Jersey Knight, Jersey Gem, as well as Purple Passion and Mary Washington.
Weed the bed each spring before the first shoots come up, to avoid accidentally breaking off spears. During the production period, it is best to pull rather than hoe weeds. Maintain a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch throughout the year.
Water deeply less often to moisten the soil to a depth of at least 6 inches, but don’t drown the plants. Light watering will encourage shallow rooting. Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are all important at planting and throughout the entire lifespan of asparagus, so use a complete fertilizer yearly. Apply ¼ cup of fertilizer (10-10-10) to each plant in late winter or very early spring before the spears emerge and again after harvest.
Harvest lightly in the third year for three to four weeks if the ferns the year before were very vigorous, bushy and shoulder-high. It is possible to harvest very lightly in the second year just for a taste if the fern in the previous year was very vigorous, bushy and waist-high. If the fern was weak, postpone harvest until the third year.
Harvest spears daily during the harvest period. Six- to eight-inch spears are best and should be cut or snapped off at the soil surface before the tips begin to separate. Cutting too deeply can injure the crown buds that produce the next spears. If the asparagus is allowed to get much taller, the base of the spear may be tough and will have to be cut. The ferny foliage will get killed by a heavy frost, so clip the leaves to the ground in winter.
Asparagus is a great addition to any vegetable garden or accent plant in a flower bed (with the benefits of deliciousness). If you don’t like to eat them, bring them to the Extension office and we will make sure they are put to good use.
Reach Campbell Vaughn, the UGA Agriculture and Natural Resource agent for Richmond County, by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.