May 16th, 2011

Asparagus: Patron Plant of Patience

diane

Diane Ott Whealy

In spite of Mother Nature’s plan to skip spring in Northeast Iowa, May still arrived on the calendar.  I waited awhile to begin poking around the asparagus bed at Heritage Farm, but this week I was hoping to find a few brave little spears.  No such luck.   I ended up weeding out the Creeping Charlie, some stinging nettles and remembered that asparagus is the Patron Plant of Patience.

This particular bed, planted over 20 years ago, is a testament to that fact. The story began with a letter from an Ohio gentleman in the mid eighties.   He mentioned his father always grew asparagus from seed.  Although it had no name he maintained the spears rivaled any commercial variety.  I have a special affinity for asparagus and rhubarb (both are my spring tonics).  Plus reading his claim set off my seed saving gene—I just had to request a sample.

Frog-Asparagus1

Illustration by Judith Griffith

Opening the mail at SSE, I had become accustomed to receiving small samples of seed sent in the mail in recycled creative packaging.  Seeds often arrived in matchboxes, pill bottles, church offering envelopes, folded handkerchiefs and nylon stockings. But when a three-pound Folgers coffee can appeared filled with beautiful red asparagus seed, I was taken aback.

It was the summer of 1985 and SSE had its first Iowa garden in a five acre field of fertile river bottomland.  I planted long rows of the seed about two inches deep and about three inches apart in sandy rich soil.  The germination was slow but eventually rows of delicate ferns resembling Baby’s Breath appeared. Seeing those “nanospears” made me realize this was going to be a long process.  When these seedlings were about six inches tall, I thinned them to about two inches apart. I cared for these fat toothpicks for two years.  Because they were still planted too close together the crowns had to be transplanted and spaced wider apart and about a foot deep in a permanent home. By that time SSE had purchased Heritage Farm, so I dug enough small crowns to fill the current patch in front of the barn.

Normally you wait about three years before harvest after the crowns are planted, by that time they have developed a strong root system.  I had already invested two years with the seedlings and lost one year for transplanting—I would be at year six before I could expect a taste of my “coffee can” asparagus.

By year six or seven we harvested only the spears that were larger than a pencil in size and had enough for a small feast.  Today some 25 years later, patience has paid off, and there is a magnificent bed of “coffee-can” asparagus. After harvesting for 7-8 weeks, I let the patch go to seed.  Visitors pass by the bed and always comment on the beautiful ferns with the red berries, because not many folks ever see asparagus going to seed.  Birds spread the seed and I find miniature asparagus plants placed perfectly in the gardens, the delicate ferny foliage always complimenting what is growing around them.  Just this morning I passed by three fat spears in the flower beds in front of the Lillian Goldman Visitor Center.  I smiled knowing the “coffee can” asparagus was taking care of itself these days.

Patience does have rewards. And one comforting thing about growing older: your asparagus patch gets better.


Guest blogger Diane Ott Whealy makes her home in Decorah, Iowa, where she is the cofounder and vice president of education at Seed Savers Exchange. Her new book, Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver, will be released in May 2011. The story chronicles her life of homesteading; nurturing children, gardens, and seeds; and maintaining sanity and a sense of humor while helping grow the largest nongovernmental seed bank of its kind in the country.

Photo of Diane: Jim Richardson

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Comments

    I have tried asparagus in the Pacific NW twice. Both times these little black bugs have come the 2nd or 3rd year and had a feast. MUCH to my dismay the plants never recovered. I am trying again this year, and, although we are having a VERY cold, wet spring, I see little spears (about 7) that are about 5 in. long. Hopefully, this 3rd time will be a charm and I will eventually (in 2-3 years) get a nice crop. It was wonderful seeing those asparagus roots produce after planting them only 2 months ago. Any organic suggestions for keeping the black bugs from feasting?

    Where do I get these Asparagus (Also white) plants or seeds?

    These plants are the healthiest (also the white asparagus) Where do I get some organic ones?

    Hi Jan,
    I know how disappointing it is to lose a year of asparagus. The black bugs you see could be the asparagus beetle. Both adults and larvae feed on the spears in the spring and continue their feast on into the summer. They can completely defoliate the ferns, leaving little nutrients to feed the crowns for next spring’s yield.
    One option this season would be to hand pick the beetles and larvae when they first appear and drop them into a can of soapy water or use a soft brush to knock the larvae to the ground where they will not survive. Natural predators such as chickens could forage on the bugs or introduce lady bugs to feast on the asparagus beetle.
    I contact my local extension office often to help identify bugs and for recommendations which is another option. Best wishes for a successful asparagus bed. Diane
    Hi Val,
    I agree white asparagus has a delicate flavor, in Spain it was common to find this delicacy in the spring marketplace and jars of pickled white asparagus were always available. If you have your own bed, you can produce white asparagus by depriving the stalks of light. The plant can not produce chlorophyll without light so there is no green color to the stalks. You can blanch by mounding up soil or straw over the asparagus row. Hopefully you will be able to find organic sources from your local farmers market, food co-op or try your own organic bed. Good luck! Diane

    [...] Since she co-founded Seed Savers Exchange in 1975, Diane has been committed to promoting heirloom garden crops and a genetically-diverse food supply. Her work at Heritage Farm and around the country has also recently been profiled in the Des Moines Register. She is also a frequent contributor to Organicgardening.com [...]

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