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How to grow the perfect asparagus

Garden quiz: What stands straight like soldiers in spring then turns into a fairytale feathery forest in late summer? Asparagus of course!

Asparagus is one of the first plants to greet us come springtime. It’s a perennial which once established the tender spears will return year after year. Many times, those new to this plant miss the early, fresh spikes on the plant because they emerge so quickly.

The most important thing to remember is not to harvest any spears during the first two seasons. It needs to get established, but patience is well worth it as beds can be productive for many years.

Choose a sunny site that drains well. Eliminate all weeds from planting site working in 2 to 4 inches of compost. Dig a trench 12 to 18 inches wide and 6 to 8 inches deep. If planting more than one trench, space at least 3 feet apart. This allows easy weeding access.

Soak asparagus crowns in lukewarm water before planting. The best planting method is to make a 2-inch-high ridge of soil down the center of trench and place asparagus crown on top of mound. Spread the roots out within the trench, spacing the crowns 12 to 18 inches apart (root tip to root tip). Cover the crowns with compost and topsoil, burying crowns 2 inches deep and water in.

As season progresses and spears grow 2- to 3-inches tall add 2 inches of soil, careful not to bury spears completely. Repeat this process until the trench has been filled to ground level mounding soil slightly to prevent water pooling. The biggest issue with asparagus is managing weeds, so add a 4 to 6 inches layer of mulch. New plantings require 1 to 2 inches of water per week along with a steady supply of plant food.

The first year cut down dead ferns in late fall and side dress with compost. During second year side dress with compost spring and fall, cutting down dead ferns late fall. The third-year bed should be ready to harvest. Check your plants every other day to harvest as spears grow quickly and may become woody. Once spears open and have foliage, it’s too tough for eating.

Harvest when spear reaches 8 to 10 inches in height and between 0.5 to .75 inches thick, cutting with a sharp knife at ground level. Stop harvesting when diameter of spear decreases to size of a pencil. Don’t cut down remaining spears/ferns in summer as you’ll ruin your bed. Allow ferns to mature as this replenishes the nutrients for next year.

A few recommended varieties are Jersey Giant, Jersey Knight and Jersey King as they are male varieties which are superior to female plants (Mary and Martha Washington) that produce red berries that become seedlings crowding your bed.

If asparagus beetles find their way into your bed, control with insecticidal soap or plant things that attract beneficial insects, including ladybugs.

For details on growing this beautiful (and tasty!) plant, go to: https://go.osu.edu/asparagus

Baytos is an Ohio State University Extension Master Gardener Volunteer in Mahoning County.

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