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>> Asparagus


“You needn’t tell me that a man who doesn’t love oysters and asparagus and good wines has got a soul or a stomach either. He’s simply got the instinct for being unhappy.”

This quote from Hector Hugh Munro, a British political journalist, not only is right on the point, but it also reveals the haughty culinary company in which asparagus has found itself over the centuries.

Asparagus is deemed a delicacy by many palettes today and is known as the ‘Food of Kings’. The tasty spears we consume were originally bred from plants that were native to central Europe and western and central Asia. They were also popular in ancient times in Greece, Rome and Egypt. King Louis XIV of France (1638–1715) was a great fan of this member of the lily family. It has been noted in various history books that he encouraged production of asparagus in Europe during his reign. He even went so far as to construct special glass houses so that he could enjoy the taste of asparagus all year long. Julius Caesar and Thomas Jefferson are also noted as having a liking for asparagus.

Asparagus derived its name from the Greek word meaning to ‘sprout’ or ‘shoot’. It has been a cultivated plant since Roman times, and before that the ancient Greeks ate it from the wild. In Rome, asparagus was so sought after that they assembled ‘asparagus fleets’, whose occupation was to search the entire empire for the best asparagus spears and bring them back to Rome. Given all the attention that it has received throughout history you would think this small speared plant would have a big head (like cabbage).

Asparagus, for all its great taste, was originally a medicinal plant. It was thought to be the answer for a number of ailments, including toothaches, bee stings, heart trouble and edema. Claims were made that it was an excellent laxative and diuretic, and could even be taken as a sedative. Now that is multi-tasking!

The main varieties of asparagus chosen by most home gardeners were ‘Martha Washington’, ‘Viking’ and ‘Jersey Knight’. Currently, variations of the Jersey line are the ones that most gardeners are planting. Ensure the variety you choose exhibits some resistance to fusarium crown rot, which is the number one disease of asparagus on the prairies.

Asparagus loves well-drained, sandy loam soil. Clay soil can be used in asparagus production but should have plenty of organic matter incorporated to improve drainage. A fertilizer high in phosphorus should be added the summer before planting, but asparagus should not be fertilized in the year it is planted. In the following years the plant will require a large amount of nitrogen in proportion to phosphorus and potassium.

About one inch per week is required for optimal spear growth. Watering should be continued into the fall, long after the cutting season is over. Asparagus needs to grow to produce food energy, which is then stored in the root tissue prior to the dormant season.

There are two main avenues to consider when planting. One is to plant the seed directly in the soil (see table A) and the other is to plant the crowns. Asparagus crowns are simply asparagus seeds that have been previously planted and formed a root mass. These crowns can be purchased from nurseries and garden centres, and will reduce the time between planting and harvest. Two-year-old asparagus crowns are preferable since that means there is only a further wait of two years until full harvest can begin.

The rows of crowns should be planted approximately 1.5 m (5 ft.) apart and the plants should be spaced 30 cm (12 in.) in the row. This allows for manual weed control and also increases the vigour of the spears. Plant the crowns in a 10 to 13 cm deep (4–5 in.) hole, and then lightly cover the crown with 5 cm (2 in.) of soil. When the spears begin to emerge, lightly cover them with soil and repeat until the hole has been filled.

This is the tricky part about asparagus. The plants are generally not harvested until three years after they were started from seed. Even then, the harvest should not last any longer than two weeks. A longer harvest than that may weaken the plants and cause stress which can result in smaller spears the following year.

From year four and beyond, harvest can go from 6 to 8 weeks. It can start as early as the beginning of May and go until the end of June. It is best not to harvest the spears into July as the plant needs adequate time to grow and allow food to be stored in the roots for the following year. Again late-cutting will weaken the plant and affect spear size.

Asparagus Casserole with Mushroom Sauce

45 ml (3 tbsp) chopped onions
30 ml (2 tbsp) butter
1000 ml (4 cups) asparagus, cut into 1 inch pieces
250 ml (1 cup) milk 375 ml (1 1/2 cups) corn flakes
2 eggs, slightly beaten
5 ml (1 tsp) salt

2tbsp butter
45 ml (3 tbsp) flour
500 ml (2 cups) milk
5 ml (1 tsp) mustard
5 ml (1 tsp) salt
10 ml (2 tsp) chopped chives
10 ml (2 tsp) chopped pimentos
210 ml (14 tbsp) sliced mushrooms

Preheat oven to 375°.
Fry onions in butter until tender. Mix with remaining casserole ingredients, turn into baking dish and bake until set, approx 50 minutes.

Melt butter in saucepan. Stir in flour until well blended. Blend in milk and cook, stirring constantly, until thickened. Stir in mustard and salt until well mixed; fold in chives, pimento and mushrooms. Heat through, serve over asparagus custard.

Cut the spear with a sharp knife about one inch below the soil line. This should provide you with edible spears that are roughly 15–20 cm (6–8 in.) long. Be careful when cutting the spears that you do not cut any other part of the crown. To ensure that this does not happen, some people prefer to snap the spears off at ground level.

Once harvested, asparagus does not store well. The spears should be removed and stored in a cool, moist area. If the spears are becoming limp, cut 2.5 cm (0.5 in.) off the base of the stalks and stand them up in 2.5 cm of warm water. That should help to straighten them out again.

Since the crowns are planted fairly deeply in the ground, over-wintering is generally not a problem. Allowing the spears to remain upright and leaving trash on the ground will also provide some cover. If you are concerned at all with winterkill, you can put 7.5–10 cm (3–4 in.) of mulch over the plot as well.

White Asparagus
If you thought that green asparagus was as good as it gets, welcome to the pièce de résistance for this perennial. White asparagus tends to be milder and more tender, with a slight nutty flavour, when compared to its green counterpart.

Growing white asparagus isn’t much more difficult either, although it requires just a bit more attention. The white appearance of the spear is due to the fact that it is not grown in sunlight. The spears are generally covered with a black plastic drum, black plastic or simply soil. This allows the spears to grow while avoiding the sunlight. As the spears begin to protrude, they are then covered up again by more soil. If you can actually find white asparagus in the stores, it normally fetches two to three times the price of traditional green asparagus.

To be even more exotic, try purple asparagus. Varieties such as ‘Purple Passion’ and ‘Viola’ are purple on the outside while retaining their green interior. If you are interested in purple asparagus, start searching now as these varieties are hard to find.

As with most perennial vegetables, the hardest part is getting started, finding a spot that can be used year after year and which is suitable for the crop. After the work has been done, asparagus graciously rewards your efforts every May and June for quite a few years. And as you are enjoying asparagus finger sandwiches fresh from the patch, you will thank yourself for the inspiration, not to mention the time and effort, of planting this patch those few short years ago.

By Andrew Sullivan PAg
Andrew Sullivan is the Saskatchewan Provincial Vegetable Specialist.
The above article was originally published in the Spring 2004 Gardener for the Prairies.