Growing Asparagus in Alberta
By: Rob Sproule
Fresh asparagus is a short-season wonder that travels across our dinner plates like a shooting star. It’s easier to grow than most people think, and hardy even in the Great-White North. Dig into some of the details…
“Keep bees and grow asparagus,
listen to the wind
instead of the politicians,
make up your own stories
and believe them if you want to live
the good life.”
“• Miriam Waddington
Eating fresh asparagus is, like seeing my first bee or smelling my first tomato plant, a sure sign that spring is here again. It’s an odd little veggie, sliced out of the ground as an emerging shoot, made more delicious because its season is so fleeting. I know what you’re thinking, and yes, it makes your pee smell. It’s also a remarkably healthy superfood. A warning first about how addictive home-grown asparagus is. Eat it once and you’ll never think about buying the imported green tubes of fibre that grocery stores stock off-season.
They’ll take 4-5 years from seed, so most people buy root crowns. The best planting spot is sunny but sheltered (picture a garden patch protected by mature trees). Plants crowns so they leaves are clear of the soil. You can plant as soon as you can work the soil, but stay vigilant with the blankets in case of freak spring cold snaps. Make sure the soil drains well. If it’s dense, either amend it with peat moss or form mounds with trenches around them for planting. They thrive in raised beds. They appreciate some yummy compost or sea soil blended in, and an occasional phosphate or potassium rich fertilizer (high middle or last number). Plants the crowns about a foot apart and they’ll grow into a dense and delicious asparagus patch.
In the fall, let the foliage die back naturally so it pulls as many nutrients in the roots as possible. Tuck them in with a little clean, organic mulch, especially if they’re in a raised bed, and make sure they freeze with moist roots.
The Art of Harvesting:
Before you can harvest asparagus, you’ll need to cultivate patience. It’s slow to start, but once established it’s a long lived perennial that will yield for about 20 years. You’ll see crowns shooting up the next spring, but resist the temptation. They need to build their root systems, so wait, and wait, and wait. It’s a total tease, but important for long-lived plants.
Here’s the calendar:
“¢ 1st spring: no picking. Try to pretend they’re not there and definitely don’t think about those shoots grilled with a little melted butter.
“¢ 2nd spring: if you planted seeds, keep waiting. If you planted crowns, you can harvest for 2 weeks only.
“¢ 3rd spring: if you planted seeds, see 2nd spring. If you planted crowns, you can harvest for 4 weeks.
“¢ 4th spring and beyond: harvest freely.
Mature plants should give 8 weeks of harvesting. Once the shoots start getting thin (smaller than the diameter of a pencil) leave them alone. Harvesting after this point will weaken the plant. To harvest, wait until spears are about 8″ tall and slice cleanly (sharp blade) at or slightly below soil level. If the spears have opened into ferny growth, leave them be as they’ll be too tough to eat. Store them in the fridge in an open plastic bag (sealing it will lead to gases building up and faster spoiling). They’ll last about 4 days like that, but more tender the faster you eat them.
Learn more about growing asparagus with Alberta’s Best Gardening Blog
Good and Good For You:
We’ve loved asparagus for over 2,000 years. Starting with the Egyptians and on to the Greeks and Romans, it was so prized that it was offered up in religious rituals. To ancient peoples it was healthy, medicinal, and a potent aphrodisiac. For the record, a lot of things shaped like that tended to be called aphrodisiacs.
Purple asparagus is sweeter because there’s less fibre in it, and all asparagus is packed with anti-inflammatories and antioxidants. It also contains the amino acid asparagine, which helps insulin transport glucose. There are ongoing studies to measure the veggie’s ability to control and/or fight diabetes. You’ll also get high amounts of folic acid (it’s beneficial for moms-to-be), along with a host of Vitamins (K, A, C, B6). It’s a well balanced veggie, offering trace amounts of phosphorous, copper, and iron as well. And did I mention it’s amazing with a little melted butter?