Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis L.) has always enjoyed pride of place in the cottage gardens of our grandmothers. It is an airy plant, up to 1,5m tall, with handsome ferny foliage, long wiry stems and narrow scale-like leaves. However, while most of us grow asparagus as a decorative perennial, it is rather more valued abroad for its tasty tender shoots, which are very low in calories.
Asparagus is a perennial plant – it comes back year after year in mid- to late April. Thick white shoots emerge in spring, which eventually turn green. Sometimes they acquire a light lilac, pink or yellowish hue. These asparagus spears are edible, and are highly regarded for their taste. After a month or so the shoots grow into thin, long and branched stems, which burst into tiny white flowers in June. Red berries rippen by the end of the summer. Seeds remain vialable for a considerable period of time.
Asparagus plants are propagated from seeds or by division of the crown (a piece of a rhizome with 1 or 2 growth buds and a few roots is sufficient). This is best undertaken in spring. Freshly collected seeds should be sown in trays in autumn. For the best results stratify dry and old seeds before sowing. Soak seeds in water for 2-3 days (changing water every day), then mix them with damp sand and keep in the fridge for a month. Then sow the seeds into small pots and keep warm.
Move seedlings into the growing beds in spring. Come autumn, the asparagus stems die down to the ground, while their thick and fleshy rhizomes overwinter safely under the ground. It is well worth mulching asparagus crowns with thick layer of peat before the onset of winter. You can start harvesting an asparagus planting in its second or third year, provided it has been given good care. Watering is essential if the weather is dry, otherwise asparagus spears will be become tough and unpalatable. Asparagus can be propagated by crown division in early spring as soon as coltsfoots start flowering. Plant new divisions so that their growth buds are burried 10-15cm deep.
Asparagus thrives in fertile and free-draining soil, while it absolutely detests water-logged sites. Asparagus is a perennial crop, which can be cultivated in the same spot for a number of years, so be generous with rich compost or well-rotted manure every spring.
A thich layer of mulch not only protects asparagus crowns from winter freeze and spring frosts, but it also benefits the quality of the spears – the thicker the layer of mulch, the longer and the whiter the shoots are. It is not an unusual to apply a 30cm thick mulch layer. The mulch should be carefully brushed aside prior to harvesting. This is best done manually, since the shoots break easily. If mulch is not available, the crowns could be covered with the soil drawn from around the bed.
An asparagus plant yields about 8 to 16 shoots. In Lithuania they are normally harvested in late April or early May, weather permitting. In order not to miss the perfect harvesting time, the crowns should be checked regularly. It is best they are harvested every 1 to 3 days. When grown in a thickly mulched bed, the growing asparagus spears lift the mulch, which makes the asparagus plants all the easier to spot. Harvest asparagus by scraping off the soil, cutting or snapping the spears and replacing the layer of mulch again.
Asparagus can be harvested over a three to four week period during its growing season. Asparagus has deserved a reputation for being a gourmet food all over the world, and is widely grown in the gardens of connoisseurs. A number of asparagus varieties has been developed over the time in order to extend the harvesting season by a few weeks. Besides, there are a few cultivars of asparagus, which can be eaten green, and therefore they do not require blanching or mulching. Asparagus is rich in nutrients – potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and vitamin C, and very low in callories.
Asparagus is served prepared in a very straightforward way. Peel the bases of the stalks, leaving the tops intact. Asparagus is usually boiled in vertical position until tender. Add salt, lemon juice or wine vinegar to the boiling water, depending on your preferences. Take care not to overcook. Sprinkle cooked asparagus with olive oil. Asparagus goes well with Parmesan cheese, avocado, thinly sliced ham and white dry wine. Asparagus can also be served steamed and fried.
© Giedra Bartas, 2009