Deb Babcock: Asparagus is worth the wait

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Deb Babcock

Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.

Find more gardening columns here.

A member of the lily family, edible asparagus (Liliaceae) takes two to three years to become established, but then can be harvested for as many as 15 years. It’s a relatively pest-free plant and is easy to maintain in our mountain community.

Asparagus is one of the more costly vegetables in the produce section of the supermarket because the spears must be hand-picked to avoid damaging the tips. So it’s economical to grow and harvest it from your home garden. Plus, who doesn’t love being able to enjoy eating fresh vegetables you’ve grown yourself?

The asparagus plant is a beautiful, tall, feathery ornamental that looks really nice as a backdrop for the other flowers and vegetables in your garden. Because the plant takes up a large space in the garden, plant the seed or year-old crowns about a foot apart in furrows that are 4 to 10 inches deep. The crowns should be set 6 to 8 inches below ground level, covered with about 2 inches of soil and watered well. As the plant grows, begin filling in the furrows so the ground is level by fall.

Asparagus prefers full sun, but needs lots of water.

Among the strains of asparagus recommended by the CSU Agriculture Department are Mary and Martha Washington, particularly strain No. 72 with its large spears. Jersey giant is another all-male variety of asparagus that doesn’t produce seed, putting all its energy into root and foliage production.

In the second year of growth, cut the ferns to ground level in spring and fertilize with nitrogen and ammonium nitrate.

Once your asparagus begins producing spears, you’ll want to harvest by hand just before the heads begin to open, probably in early June for the Steamboat Springs area. Either snap off or cut the spears at the surface of the ground. You don’t want to leave stubs of spears as they will poke painfully into your fingers and hands when you harvest in later years. Harvesting begins whenever spears are more than three-eighths of an inch in diameter and continues as fat spears are produced, about six to 10 weeks. It’s recommended to leave the thinner spears to grow up into ferns.

The best way to store asparagus is to place the cut stems in an inch of water and stand them upright in the refrigerator with a loose covering of plastic over the tips. Or, wrap a dampened paper towel around the stems and store in a plastic bag with the end left open.

There are about 150 varieties of asparagus that are purely ornamental, not edible. However, these must be grown indoors here as they are rated for USDA Zones 12 to 24, a much more moderate climate.

Deb Babcock is a master gardener through the Routt County Extension Office. Call 970-879-0825 with questions.

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