Jersey asparagus is worth the wait

Growing Asparagus Plants in the GardenAsparagus is usually thought of as a crop for the patient gardener because it takes two years to establish itself before it can be harvested. The truth is, after that, asparagus is a perfect crop for the impatient gardener. It literally pops out of the earth, sweet and tender and instantly available for dinner. Plus, the cost savings between growing your own and paying $4.99 for a small bundle at the grocery store is well worth the effort.

It's a member of the lily family and originated along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and on its many islands. It was considered a delicacy in Ancient Greece and still is, in modern times.

The top asparagus varieties in the world all bear the Jersey name, with Jersey Giant, Jersey Knight and Jersey Supreme among the choices.

Why the emphasis on the Garden State? Well, New Jersey is the fourth largest asparagus producing state, behind California, Washington, and Michigan. And Jersey varieties are hardy, able to grow in Michigan and Washington, as well as in Canadian provinces, including Nova Scotia.

Jersey Giant, Jersey Knight and Jersey Supreme are male hybrids. With asparagus, the males are more productive, and the females handle seed and berry production, thus, fewer resources to devote to producing spears.

Both male and female asparagus plants produce an edible vegetable, but the New Jersey emphasis on male hybrids exists because these varieties are resistant to rust, which is a fungus disease to which asparagus is highly susceptible. The males are also resistant to fusarium rot and crown rot.

When you're ready to plant, it’s best to start with crowns rather than seeds. You can choose from one- or two-year crowns. You won't be moving the asparagus bed for many years to come, up to 15 to 20 years, so be sure and plant asparagus out of the way on one side of the garden so you needn’t disturb it in early spring.

First, prepare soil by mixing in organic material, such as compost or rotted manure. And then, when planting, spread out the root system and place crown buds upward, 4 to 6 inches below the level of the surface. Cover crowns with 2 inches of soil. Place the rest alongside the row. When new shoots appear, fill in the trench until it reaches the level of the garden. Water when necessary during the summer. Keep it weed-free, and occasionally add compost or manure.

Asparagus does take space. The rule of thumb is that a patch large enough to satisfy an average family of asparagus lovers should contain at least 50 plants, set 18 inches apart. That translates into a planting bed at least 75 feet long and 3 feet wide.

On the other hand, an asparagus bed can do double duty as an ornamental “hedge.” Once the harvest is done for the year, the remaining spears are left to grow into tall, ferny foliage — perfect for camouflaging fences or providing a feathery backdrop for the rest of the garden.

Then, the wait begins for harvest. Don't touch the delicate stalks the first year. The next year, you can harvest two or three times in the spring. This would be the first year after transplanting. Take it easy and don't over harvest or you'll weaken the root system. But after that, you can harvest for up to two solid months. When cutting is completed, allow the fernlike tops to develop and produce leaves.

Cut asparagus when the spears are 6 to 8 inches tall. Use a sharp asparagus knife to cut the spear 1 or 2 inches below the surface of the soil.

And then, enjoy. Asparagus is one of the delicacies of the vegetable world.

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