Helen McKerralPlanting asparagus

The last deciduous perennial crop to rush into the ground before spring was asparagus, one of my family’s favourite greens. Several plants have languished in my old garden for years – it’s just too shady for them there.

Comparison of bare-rooted asparagus crowns ‘Mary Washington’ & nursery plants

Still, it was worth transplanting the three best ones, and I supplemented with an extra eight Mary Washington as enormous bare-rooted crowns from my local nursery. I also bought two “Fat Bastard” plus three purple asparagus from a different mail-order nursery.

I was disappointed by the size of the latter’s plants – you can see they’re a fraction of the size of my local nursery’s plants. These cultivars are probably more expensive to propagate, so a direct price comparison is unfair, but I’d incorrectly assumed they too would also be bare-rooted crowns, rather than container-grown ones; in my opinion the latter are never as strong as field-grown plants. It’s why I prefer to buy bare-rooted fruit trees, rather than ones grown in bags. Oh well, I’ll be able to eat the Mary Washingtons a couple of years before the others come into production.

I chose a sunny spot in the new area, a crescent-shape with gypsum added and lots of organic matter. But the organic matter in the bed comprises last season’s mulch from my mulcher and isn’t completely rotted, so I dug through old compost, Rapid Raiser and a generous sprinkle of lime. After that I dug a trench, and partially backfilled with well-composted soil from the old chicken coop, so the crowns and roots aren’t in contact with the fresher material and have ideal conditions at the start. By the time the roots extend into the newer mulch, I figure it will have rotted down. I didn’t add extra lime because the pH of the soil from the old chook run is suitable (asparagus prefers a neutral pH of 6.5-7).

I placed the crowns in the bottom of the trench so they’ll end up about 10-12 cm below the surface, spreading the bare-roots carefully over little mounds. Some people put a layer of old manure in the bottom of the trench to give plants an extra boost; I should probably have mixed Rapid Raiser into the soil at the bottom of the trench but didn’t think of it.

I then covered the crowns with more old chook soil to a depth of about 5cm, and remembered the Rapid Raiser, so I sprinkled it in then.

Instructions for planting asparagus crowns range from 30-60cm apart; I’ve put mine about 35cm apart but this still seems too close, and I remember my grandmother’s asparagus bed as a jungle of enormous plants. I suspect mine will be crowded – what do gardeners who have grown asparagus think? My soil is so loose and friable that I should still be able to transplant a few of them next year if necessary. I’ve left the centre of the bed clear for two log rounds so I can step into the middle to harvest. Well, that’s the plan: if the plants spread too widely, the centre might become inaccessible.

As the spears grow over the next month, I’ll top up the soil (first more good soil, then the mulch, and finally peastraw. You can see the bed just after planting, with the compost, mulch and pea straw piled in the centre, ready to pull down into the trench.

Asparagus cut fresh from the garden is like sweetcorn, or tomatoes: I remember from my grandmother’s garden that it tastes way, way better than the bought stuff. But it’s also very important not to harvest asparagus in its first year after planting, so that strong plants can establish.

Asparagus ‘Mary Washington’

 

Sigh. But the new Mary Washington crowns are so huge I could probably sneak a few spears the next season, and the season after that they should produce a decent crop.

Yum – I can’t wait!

 

 

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Helen McKerral

About Helen McKerral

Horticultural journalist, photographer, contributor to many garden magazines, and author of 'Gardening on a Shoestring'. Adelaide Hills, South Australia

11 thoughts on “Planting asparagus

  1. Matt Popplewell on said:

    A piece that takes me back to my childhood days Helen. Used the asparagus once fully grown as a great place for hide and seek. Not only a tasty crop when young but a magnificent screen when harvesting has finished and the plant is fully grown. Lovely blog Helen.

  2. Julie on said:

    Helen, I had heard that asparagus takes several years – like three or four – before it produces a crop to harvest. Is this right? Sounds like the variety you planted is not so. I have always avoided it because it sounded like hard work and questionable results. What have I missed?
    Julie

  3. helen mckerral on said:

    Hi Julie!

    It’s not the variety per se, but the AGE of the plants you start with that determines time until harvest.

    From seed (cheap, easy to germinate albeit slow), you’re waiting at least three years. A very light harvest is supposedly possible from two year old plants if you’ve done everything right… but for many of us that’s not the case! Provide less-than-perfect growing conditions and you could be waiting an extra year or two. That’s why it’s worth preparing and siting an asparagus bed properly – that, plus the fact that it can produce for up to 20 years!

    For impatient gardeners like you and me, a much better option than seed is crowns, bought in winter while they’re dormant. However, as you can see from the first pic, there’s a huge size and age difference in crowns available from different sources – the bare root ones are not only older, but much bigger – in fact the wholesale supplier to my local nursery said that the many of them were 3 years old! That’s a big head start for the home gardener and, if I restrain myself and don’t sneak any Mary Washington spears this season, I’ll certainly have an excellent harvest next year. I’m just hoping my soil is sufficiently friable and improved, as asparagus prefers light soils, not heavy clay.

    Where you might have come across the “questionable results” idea is that it’s not a space-efficient crop. Because it’s perennial, and you only harvest for a couple of months per year, the other ten months the area can’t be used for anything else, unlike annual vegie beds that can carry many crops per year.

  4. I just snuck mine in too!!! Can’t wait until I have my own yummy spears … but until then, there is always a trip to the growers at Kooweerup!

  5. anne latreille on said:

    Hi Helen, lovely practical piece, must grow some one day. I thought I would share a comment I just came across in some interview notes with a (very) old friend, Jean Walker, who was telling me about her family’s lush vegetable garden in Colac, Victoria. She talked about “strawberries so thick on the ground they had to be fenced in like clover, asparagus popping up pink through the straw”. Jean and her late sister Betty Maloney were co-authors of the fabulous 1960s books, Designing Australian Bush Gardens and More About Australian Bush Gardens. I am trying to reestablish contact with Jean, who used to live in Balgowlah . Is there anyone up there in Sydney who knows where she is, or what has become of her? Thanks, Anne

    • helen mckerral on said:

      Ahhh, Anne, strawberries… yum! Unfortunately we have millipedes here, and biting into a strawberry with a millipede in it is an unforgettable experience (no, don’t ask!). Hanging baskets or pipes are the best way here if you want strawberries without seasoning. My grandparents grew strawberries as well, in probably 200m worth of beds, and sold them in a little roadside stall.

  6. bernhard feistel on said:

    Dear Helen,

    I am impressed by just another example of your meticulous and thoughtful approach to planting, which, of course, is particularly important with asparagus when you want results for many years to come. It’s a witty coincidence, but I have just returned from Germany also to check my new asparagus beds made in June. I grew them from seeds here in England and transferred the young plants, which appeared to be quite robust. It seems as if almost each seedling has made it and accordingly I planted probably too dense (since there was no time to erect another bed).

    I built a raised bed for them to be able to create a good mini environment in our otherwise loamy soil. And in order to make it look less monocultural I have sowed annual flowers around it, also meant as a consolation that I can only start to harvest in 3 to 4 years. Hope they don’t mind or rather enjoy their company.

  7. Meryl on said:

    Hi Helen,
    Please can you let me know how to contact the supplier of your asparagus plants. I want to plant some now, and I was unable to hear clearly the name you mentioned. I also live in Adelaide. Thanks so much for your interesting Post.

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