How to Grow Asparagus
(Page 2 of 6)
Asparagus, a member of the Lily family, is one of only a few perennial vegetables. Its name, from the Greek word asparogos, means shoot or sprout. When most vegetable seedlings are too tender to plant outside, or still but a seed containing a dream, asparagus is already thrusting its delectable spears through the spring soil. A bed of asparagus is sometimes called a “lifetime planting.” The plants can yield spears for an average of 15 to 20 years, and sometimes for as long as 50 years, although the spears tend to get smaller as the plants age.
Native to Eurasia, where it grew seaside along the Mediterranean coast and British Isles, wild asparagus has been enjoyed for centuries. In America, this wild variety can often be found growing along roadsides and in dry fields. A friend of mine in Colorado makes annual asparagus hunting treks along the railroad tracks near her town; she considers it a rite of spring. Sometimes called “sparrowgrass,” a corrupted form of “sparagus,” wild asparagus stalks are smaller and less straight than cultivated varieties. Finding its way into gourmet restaurants and markets, it’s prized for its robust, earthy flavor.
Because asparagus needs to go through a season of dormancy, it generally doesn’t last long in regions with mild winters. Most of the asparagus grown in the United States comes from Michigan, New Jersey and the West Coast states. Among other traits, asparagus varieties were bred for cold-hardiness, although breeders are experimenting now to develop varieties that can withstand long, hot summers and milder winters.
Most asparagus plants sold today are hybrid varieties. Asparagus grown in this country was originally from non-hybrids of the Washington variety – Mary, Martha and Waltham Washington. The important difference, between the hybrids and these older varieties, is the number of female plants. The older varieties can be either male or female plants; the majority of asparagus hybrids are all male.
After the harvest season, female asparagus plants produce berries. Any plant uses a great deal of energy to produce seed, and asparagus is no exception. This energy the plant expends results in fewer spears the following spring, though the spears from female plants are larger than from male plants. Popular time-tested hybrids (all male) are the Jersey varieties – Jersey Knight, Jersey King, Jersey Supreme and Jersey Giant, with Jersey Knight being the variety most asparagus growers use for fresh market. Purple Passion, which loses its purple color when cooked, is also popular with gardeners for the color it adds to salads when used raw.
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