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Harvesting Asparagus

There is nothing quite like fresh cut asparagus!

By Susan Biddle ©2012
Penn State Master Gardener


Nothing says spring like fresh asparagus from your own garden bed.  This vegetable with its tender texture and succulent taste is a perennial favorite of home gardeners.  Originally native to Europe, Northern Africa and Western Asia, most supermarket asparagus comes from the leading exporters of Peru, China and Mexico.  Asparagus is grown in the United States predominantly in California, Michigan and Washington.

Asparagus is best eaten fresh from the garden, and growing your own can be rewarding.  Established plants can continue to produce delicious spears for 25 years.  Asparagus requires a sunny location and good drainage.  It prefers sandy soil with a pH between 6.5 and 6.8.  Have your soil tested before starting your asparagus beds.  You may need to add lime and fertilizer worked deeply into the soil depending on the results of your soil test.  Manure and/or compost may also be incorporated to improve heavy soil. 


Varieties of Asparagus

Choose a variety of asparagus recommended for Pennsylvania such as ‘Jersey Knight’, ‘Jersey Giant’, ‘Jersey Supreme’, or ‘Purple Passion’ from a garden catalogue or local nursery.  The rootstock, called a crown, resembles an odd-looking beige octopus.  Plant one or two year-old asparagus crowns in a trench 8 inches deep in sandy soil or 6 inches deep in clay soil, and cover with one inch of soil.  Place crowns with the buds up and the roots spread out evenly in every direction.  Space plants 12 inches apart within each row and leave 36 inches between rows.  Gradually add soil to fill the trench as the plants grow.  In the late fall you should be finished filling the trenches completely. 

cut asparagus


Harvesting Asparagus

If you have planted one year-old crowns, do not harvest asparagus the year you plant or the following year to allow strong roots to be established.  Harvest for only two weeks in the third year after planting.  During the fourth year, pick for up to four weeks.  In the fifth and future years, you may pick up to 8 weeks if the planting is vigorous.  Stop harvesting and allow the foliage to grow if spear thickness declines.  In southwestern Pennsylvania, the harvest season runs from April through early June.

 


Thick spears vs. Thin spears
Which are better?

Larger spears are more tender than thin ones despite common opinion.  Thin spears are higher in fiber, and therefore, tougher to eat.  Cut or snap off the spears when they are 6-8 inches tall.  Spears can be either cut below the soil surface or snapped off above the soil surface.  Snapping the spears will eliminate having to cut off the lower fibrous portion of each spear before cooking. 

Following the harvest period allow the spears to continue growing into the mature fern, also called the brush.  This brush is necessary to re-energize the crown for next season.  During the first year of growth, water the planting when necessary to maintain moisture 8 inches deep.  In subsequent years, a slow, deep watering of two inches of water every two weeks during dry periods should be sufficient.  In July, you may wish to fertilize based on your soil test and add a ½-inch-thick layer of compost by applying it on either side of the asparagus and cultivating lightly.  The fern foliage may be cut down after growth is stopped by frost in late fall.  A mulch of 4-6 inches of straw may be applied at this time to minimize frost damage from heaving or early emergence of spears in spring. 


Companion Plantings for Asparagus

Asparagus is a companion plant for tomatoes.  They are often planted next to one another.  The tomato plant repels the asparagus beetle while the asparagus repels some nematodes that affect tomatoes.  It is also important to control weeds and remove debris from around the plants. 

asparagus beetle

Asparagus can be attacked by various insects including cutworms, asparagus beetles, beet armyworms, aphids and Japanese beetles.  It can also be susceptible to asparagus rust and fusarium root rot.  Problems can be prevented by maintaining healthy soil, providing adequate water, drainage, and air circulation, and planting disease-resistant varieties.


Nutrients from Asparagus

Asparagus is a spring vegetable low in calories, low in sodium, and it is a good source of vitamins K, A, the B’s and C, calcium, magnesium, zinc, dietary fiber, and protein.  Asparagus is served around the world as an appetizer, side dish, in stir fries, in soups and stews, boiled, steamed, and served with sauces, butter, oil or mayonnaise.

Asparagus flavor and texture are best when consumed soon after harvesting.  Enjoy asparagus within two days of harvest or purchase.  To store, wrap the ends in a damp paper towel and keep in the refrigerator.


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