Friday, June 18, 2010

Three people – and one of them a farmer! – mentioned to me last week that their asparagus harvest was over for the season. I figured they were tired of eating asparagus, but no, they asserted that now is when you are “supposed” to stop harvesting asparagus.

Asparagus is burdened with too many myths, and that harvest window is one of them. Asparagus is a perennial vegetable (which is just one reason everyone should grow it) that each summer has to build up energy reserves in its roots to fuel the following spring’s spears. Green leaves and spears are what make that energy so you can’t harvest all summer long and then expect the plant to have enough energy to sprout again in spring.

So yes, you do have to stop harvesting at some time during the growing season in order to let the plant re-fuel. My date for that has always been easy-to-remember July 4th, which allowed for the 6 to 8 weeks of harvest that is spelled out by any authoritative source on vegetable growing. In the past, harvest around here began in early May; harvest these days begins towards the end of April so I’ll have to push the end of the harvest window back to the end of this month. That should still leave plenty of time of unfettered growth for the bed to re-fuel.

Some other reasons to plant asparagus: Neither deer nor rabbits eat it so it doesn’t need to be fenced in; the feathery fronds that grow after harvest ceases are decorative, a perfect backdrop for flowers or frontdrop for shrubs; and fresh-picked asparagus tastes different, and far better, than any asparagus you can buy.

If I do get tired of eating asparagus before the end of this month, I still won’t stop harvesting. Continual harvest of all asparagus greenery early in the season helps starve out the first generation of asparagus beetles. And frozen asparagus is a winter treat.

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Another asparagus myth is that you get a bed going by digging a deep trench, in the bottom of which you set young plants or roots, then fill in the soil up around the new spears as they grow.

I fortunately read Ruth Stout’s No Work Garden Book (1971) before I ever planted asparagus, so was able to bypass all that digging. She recommended digging out only enough dirt to get the plants into the ground. Years later, I read of some actual research that confirmed Ms. Stout’s iconoclastic bent.

The reason for the traditional trench planting of asparagus was because the beds were tilled with tractors. The blades of the tillage implements cut deeply into the ground and deep planting put the crowns beyond the reach of metal.

The quality of asparagus spears is best when they emerge from cool soil, which could have been another reason for deep planting. I take a top-down approach and instead keep the soil cool with mulch, maintained year ‘round a couple of inches deep. The mulch also helps snuff out weeds, maintains soil moisture, and enriches the ground, as it decomposes, with nutrients and humus. Ms. Stout was famous for mulching.

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Right now, the north wall of my brick house is dripping with clusters of white blossoms held out against a backdrop of healthy, green leaves. Each cluster of blossoms consists of a rim of white petaled (sepals, really) flowers circling a cluster of small, petal-less, greenish flowers, the whole effect against the wall being like stars twinkling in the night.

The vining plant, climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala spp. petiolaris), adorning the wall is universally acknowledged as one of the prettiest of flowering vines. This plant is generally loved, among those who know it, also for its cinnamon-brown, peeling bark and for its ability to thrive in sun or shade, even climb a tree without doing harm. My plant followed the books and took a couple of years to get going.

This year’s profusion of bloom has highlighted yet another quality of climbing hydrangea, one that’s rarely mentioned. The plant suffuses the north side of my house with a sweet, yet not overpowering, fragrance, conveniently appreciated from the terrace adjacent to that verdant wall.

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