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ESTABLISHING AN ASPARAGUS BED

Few vegetable dishes please the palate as much as fresh asparagus lightly steamed and with a dash of butter. Few vegetables are easier to grow, and no others are perennials that will return for 10-20 years once established. Rich in B vitamins, vitamin C, calcium, and iron, asparagus is often the first spring vegetable that you can harvest.

Asparagus thrives in full sun and prefers a light, well-drained soil. It will not tolerate competition; so prepare the planting area carefully and keep it mulched after planting. Asparagus is a heavy feeder that prefers a fairly neutral pH of 6.5-7.5. Generous applications of compost will provide the necessary nutrients as well as help to balance our acidic East Texas soils.

As a general rule, asparagus is established by planting one-year-old crowns. Choose your site carefully, preferably on the northern side of the garden to avoid shading out other plants. Loosen the soil 16" deep and amend it well with compost and rotted manure. Fall preparation for spring planting is best, but spring preparation will work unless the pH of your soil is very low. Plant the crowns about 6" deep and 1 1/2 ' apart, cover with soil, and mulch well. Keep the bed moist, but not wet. Raised beds are preferable to ensure that weeds and grass cannot encroach.

Don't plan to harvest any spears the first year. Allow the plants to grow lush foliage, which will be cut back in the fall after turning brown. Harvest lightly the second year, choosing two or three of the heavier spears per plant. Allow the wispy spears to grow into ferns once again. The third year, you can eat all you can cut, and the wait will be well worth it.

Keep in mind that asparagus produces early, but still needs to be fed, watered and kept well mulched throughout the growing season. Treat it kindly and it will reward you with many years of delicious meals. Recommended varieties for our area are UC72, UC 157, and Jersey Giant.

Kathy Fiebig, Smith County Master Gardener
Texas AgriLife Extension Service


PLANTING ASPARAGUS

Asparagus is a perennial plant that can grow to a height of five feet or more and can produce spears for twelve to fifteen years. You should plant it an area where it will not shade other vegetables in your garden. It is grown for its edible spears, but the asparagus foliage is also a pleasing addition to a garden. This is a vegetable that requires patience, as the asparagus spears should not be harvested until the third year after being planted.

To prepare a bed for asparagus crowns, till an area about four feet wide and as long as you wish, at least 10 to 12 inches deep. Spread 3 to 4 inches of organic matter over the area and add manure at the rate of 1/2 pound per square foot. Add a complete fertilizer such as 10-20-10 at the rate of 1/2 pound per 100 square feet of bed area. Check the pH of your soil; and if is less than 6.0, add agricultural lime at the rate of 2-6 pounds per100 square feet of bed. Mix all of these ingredients thoroughly into the soil, and your bed is ready for planting, which is generally done during late winter or early spring.

After cold temperatures have abated, obtain asparagus crowns that are one to two years old, and plant them as soon as possible so they don't dry out. It is possible to keep them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator up to a week.

In your prepared bed, dig planting trenches not less than 10 inches deep and 10 inches wide, spaced about 2 1/2 to 3 feet apart. At the bottom of the trench, add two inches of a mixture of half compost and half well-rotted manure and about one teaspoon of phosphate fertilizer for each foot of row. Then add an inch of good soil to avoid placing the crowns directly onto the fertilizer. Slightly mound the soil down the center of the trench, and you are ready to plant your crowns.

Place the crowns over the mound in the trench 15 to 18 inches apart with the roots spread in an outward direction. Immediately cover the crowns with 2 inches of soil to prevent them from drying out. If you plant two rows, try to stagger the crowns so that they are not directly across from each other in the rows. After placing 2 inches of soil over the crowns, water well. In several weeks, the first young spears will appear. As they grow, you should fill in the trench until it is level with the garden surface, being careful not to cover the asparagus foliage. When the trench is completely filled, mulch around the plants with two inches of organic matter and keep weeds away from the plants.

Jean Brutout, Smith County Master Gardener
Texas AgriLife Extension Service


CARE AND CULTIVATION OF ASPARAGUS

To ensure strong root development and vigorous foliage growth during the first two years after planting an asparagus bed, the plants will require an inch of water per week during the growing season. In addition, prior to the emergence of spears, you should apply a nitrogen fertilizer, such as ammonium sulfate, at the rate of about 1/4 pound per 100 square feet. Manure may also be scattered over the surface of the bed at the rate of 50 pounds per 100 square feet.

At the end of the first growing season, to encourage production of spears, you should cut back the tops of the asparagus foliage to the ground. At this time, you may wish to dig up and remove the female plants, which produce smaller and fewer spears. These can be identified by the appearance of small red berries. If you dig out the female plants, you can replace them in the spring with healthy male plants.

During the first two growing seasons, keep the asparagus watered, fertilized, and weeded, and remove the tops in the winter, but do not harvest the spears. Two years after planting one-year-old crowns, you can begin harvesting spears when they are 6 inches tall. With a sharp knife, cut diagonally through the spear just below ground level in order to prevent the emergence of a clump of woody stumps above ground. To encourage strengthening of the root storage system, the first harvest season should last only about four weeks. Thereafter, the harvest season can be extended to up to eight weeks. A large proportion of the spears will emerge during the first half of the harvest season, and production will taper off as the season progresses. Harvesting should cease when the spears are less than 3/8 inch in diameter.

Beginning the third year after planting, instead of applying fertilizer before the spears emerge, you should apply it about two weeks before the end of the harvest at a rate of 1/2 pound per 100 square feet of bed. At the end of each growing season, cut plants back to about ground level.

With the care outlined above, an asparagus plant will yield an average of 8 to 12 spears per year.

Jean Brutout, Smith County Master Gardener
Texas AgriLife Extension Service


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