DIY Asparagus

Imagine spending the next 15 to 25 years of your life with the ability to walk outside and pull shoots of asparagus to your heart's content. Yum.

The mental hurdle between that vision and the actual bounty of having at-home asparagus plants is the planning: From seed, you'll have to wait two and one-half years to enjoy your yield; from root, that number dwindles to one. But the truth is, once they're started asparagus plants are very easy to grow. And your initial investment (we spent $15 on two bundles of roots/two dozen plants and simply added homemade compost and a little worm dirt from the bait store) is totally worth it when you consider most supermarkets sell a single pesticide- and chemical-riddled bunch of asparagus for $3.99.

Here's a handy guide for growing your own lovely asparagus plants from 1-year-old roots. We promise they're worth the wait!

Starting Your Asparagus Plants

Asparagus crowns look like little octopuses. When planting, you have to fan the "tentacles" out under the soil to promote the best growth.
Track down healthy crowns from a trusted grower that are at least 1 year old.  A crown is the root system of an asparagus plant grown from seed. Each crown yields one-half pound of spears per year when fully established. Better Farm picked up two bundles of crowns from the Agway in LaFargeville, N.Y. (Note: You can certainly start from seed if you wish, but expect added work as you have to transplant the seedlings when they take root; thereby losing a year in the growing process.)

Asparagus loves most soil equally; just be sure you've got good internal drainage and a soil pH of 6.5-7.5. For those of you in the same boat as us and working with the clay-rich soil of the North Country, be sure to have plenty compost-rich soil at hand to mix in with the hard earth. Asparagus also grows best in patches of ground receiving 7 to 8 hours of sunlight a day. We decided to put our crowns into raised beds off the back deck which face due south.

Dig a trench six inches deep, fan the roots out (less disruption and crimps in your roots mean bigger yields), and plant your asparagus crowns 12 to 18 inches apart. Lots of spacing is important because as the asparagus "ferns" grow, you'll find your space shrink. Well-spaced asparagus also means ferns will dry quicker after watering, thereby preventing fungus diseases.

Ruby Amanze spaces Better Farm's asparagus crowns along raised beds.

Wide between-row spacing is necessary because the vigorously growing fern will fill in the space quickly. Wide spacing also promotes rapid drying of the fern to help prevent the onset of fungus diseases.

Once you've got your asparagus in the rows, fill the trench in with soil so just one inch of the crown shows through. Don't tamp the dirt down too much—asparagus shoots love low resistance as they grow! Spears should begin within about a week of planting.

Here are our shoots:

As the shoots appear, sprinkle more dirt around the base of the plants. Tips will open as the spears stretch skyward (usually around 8 or 9 inches of height). Those small branchlets will become ferns. In the first year, it's important you don't pick any of your asparagus, as the ferns will be producing food for the plant and then moving that food down into the crown for next year's spear production.

Asparagus ferns.
Do watch for weeds (we recommend laying cardboard around your stalks). Be sure not to trim your plants back at the end of the growing season! Dead fern growth catches snow for extra soil moisture and keeps the ground cooler into the spring, which helps to delay premature asparagus growth in the spring. That next spring, you can trim back old fern growth by cutting as low as possible after the last frost has past.

Harvesting Your Asparagus
After you've been growing your crowns for a year, it's okay to harvest some asparagus (use caution, as over-picking in the second year can permanently reduce your yields in the long run). Pick asparagus by manually snapping 7- to 9 inch spears with tight tips. Don't cut spears with a knife at soil level or below—this can hurt other crowns and buds. The stub you leave behind after snapping a spear will quickly dry up and disintegrate. It's best to pick asparagus early in the morning before outside air heats up. Put your spears in ice water to remove all heat from them, drain the water, and put the spears in plastic bags in the refrigerator. Asparagus can keep one to two weeks like this, not that you'll be able to resist eating them on the same day you pick them.

For more tips on planting asparagus, click here.

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.