Its the Age of Asparagus, the Age of Asparagus, Asparagus, Asparagus!!!!!!!
Well, maybe not age, but it is the beginning of asparagus season. So why the big deal, to write a whole post about a vegetable being in season? Because in my garden this week, after a whole year of waiting, I was able to harvest some.
Asparagus isn’t difficult to grow, but they are an investment: that needs lots of space, time, and commitment. Once planted, it takes around 3 more years until you can get a decent harvest. Some justification for such a long wait? They are a perennial vegetable, which means they grow for multiple years, and a healthy bed can produce for 30 years. You can plant asparagus by seed, or by bare root crowns, which is what I did in January, 2014..
The spears that we eat and are so familiar with are the stalks of the plant. If unpicked, they turn into tall and beautiful leafy fronds, will eventually flower, and if a female, produce bright red berries. Harvesting is so limited for the first few years because the plant needs the spears for themselves to grow and develop their extensive root system.
Other than the time investment, asparagus is actually quite easy to grow. We are quickly approaching the end of bare root planting season, which includes asparagus, so make sure to get them in the ground now if you want to start your asparagus journey! Start with well drained soil or in a raised bed, and dig trenches about a foot deep. Spread the roots of the crown out, and cover with soil but still leave the top of the crown exposed. As the crowns sprout, slowly fill in the trench, which should take about 6-8 weeks. Water regularly, and don’t harvest a single spear during this first growing year.
The second year, which is where I’m at, you can harvest spears for only 1-2 weeks, and only spears that are larger than a pencil. That’s it. Leave the remaining spears to leaf out and do their thing. In the 3rd year, you can harvest for 4 weeks, in the 4th year, up to 8 weeks.
To harvest, cut spears that are 6-10″ tall, and cut just below ground level. Check your bed every day, because these things grow fast! I only have a few spears or so ready at a time, which is hardly a meal, so I keep them in a jar of water on the counter until I have a small handful. Trim the bottom stalk off by snapping it where is starts to get stiff, then give a quick rinse. I ate the first of my asparagus brushed with lemon olive oil and roasted on a sheet pan.
Nothing screams SPRING! more than fresh asparagus. And its funny, because up until recently, I actually hated asparagus and would never dream of dedicating space in my garden for it. Let alone give it 3 years of before I could eat any! I thought asparagus was gross, slimy and was on the short list of things I HATED as a kid. But then, about 8 years ago, I was shopping at the Healdsburg Farmers Market. At this time I was teaching myself how to cook and learning about local food. I stopped at the stand of Nancy Skall, of Middleton Farms, and I saw a small bundle of bright green asparagus spears. Tied with a string, they were standing upright in a tray of water, like a freshly picked bouquet of flowers.
They looked nothing like the giant, woody gray things that I had come to know as Grocery Store Asparagus, that was served steamed until slimy. They were outrageously expensive for my basically minimum wage budget, as most of Nancy’s produce rightfully was, but I bought them anyways. If I remember correctly, I lightly pan fried them, with only olive oil, salt & pepper. I ate them still slightly crunchy. They aren’t my favorite vegetable (artichokes hold that place), but they were a light year away from the gag- inducing grocery store asparagus of my childhood, and I enjoyed them!
If you’ve shopped at the Healdsburg or Sebastopol farmer’s markets, you’ve seen Nancy, and her amazing produce. Once I told her that I absolutely loved her peaches and I was enjoying them barbecued with a drizzle of cinnamon honey. I clearly remember that she responded with “I wish more young people would appreciate fine produce”. Nancy passed away last January. Other than the short shopping exchanges, I did not know her personally, but I want to thank her for introducing me to the wonders of how great fresh, local food can be. With her asparagus, I learned that you should always revisit things you thought you hated.