Asparagus and the New Year

Asparagus yellow and dormant
Asparagus yellow and dormant

I start each New Year by cutting down my asparagus plants.

These perennial vegetables may live for 15 years or more. The yellow stems show they’ve gone dormant for the winter. Now I can remove existing dead foliage in preparation for new, tasty shoots to emerge in spring. This is also the time to establish a new asparagus bed or expand an existing one.

The delicate, lacy foliage of this plant presents a false impression that the beauties are tender and require a lot of loving care to survive, especially in the hot, dry desert summer. In fact, these hardy guys love the searing sunshine, even during the hottest part of the year. Once triple-digit temperatures arrive in my Arizona garden, asparagus is one of the few crops that can withstand the extreme conditions.  

Same asparagus 2 months before
Same asparagus 2 months before

I use pruning shears to cut each stem off two to three inches above the soil. The lacy foliage goes into the compost pile.

This is a great time to remove weeds, too. I’m careful to pull them instead of using a hoe that can damage roots. I’m vigilant about not allowing Bermuda grass to grow. The rhizomes of this nasty devil intertwine with the crowns, strangling the life out of the poor veggie. I’ve lost mature asparagus to this demon foe!

With the bed cleared of weeds, now I add several inches of compost to the bed to provide nutrients for spring growth. I also withhold water while the plants are dormant.

I don’t add compost again until after I’m finished harvesting spears. At this point, I put a light application along the sides of the plants to help them grow and become strong before the hot summer arrives.

It helps to add several inches of fresh straw or other organic mulch during challenging seasonal temperatures. In the low desert, I do this in the summer to cool the soil and deter weeds. Gardeners in cooler climates must add a top dressing of mulch in the winter to guard against freezing.

Cut stems
Cut stems

As for insect pests, I’ve not had any trouble at all with those pesky guys.

 

 

 

Once a bed is established, asparagus asks very little from the gardener in terms of maintenance. Today’s annual pruning and composting tasks take only about thirty minutes.

Establishing a new bed, however, does take a bit of work.

Asparagus beds generally start with a twelve-inch-deep trench. These plants live happily in my sandy environment, but gardens with heavy or compacted soils may need trenches that are even deeper, eighteen or more inches to improve drainage.

I’ve grown asparagus for many years, but this particular bed was a new one. Fortunately, sandy soil was also easy to dig, and the job progressed quickly.

I purchased one-year-old roots, or crowns, from my local garden supply. To plant them in the trench, I first mounded a bit of soil and placed each crown so that the roots were lower than the central portion. Then I covered them with three inches of soil mixed with compost. Every two weeks I added more soil mixture until the trench was filled.

Cut foliage
Cut foliage

I didn’t harvest the asparagus at all during the first year. The plants needed time to grow and develop. Harvesting weakens them.

 

 

Next year, I can harvest them lightly for three to four weeks. They will be mature the year after that (third year), and I can harvest spears daily for up to eight weeks.

This vegetable is also available as seed from a number of garden catalogs. Planting in this way adds one more year to the growth cycle, though. I could not, for example, harvest at all for the first and second years. Buying one- or two-year-old crowns speeds up the process. 

With my New Year’s task done, I stand looking at the asparagus bed—bare and empty now that I’ve cut down the plants . . . but not sad. Now that I think about it, the best garden is sometimes the one that’s filled with hope and promise for the future.

Isn’t that what the New Year is about?

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