Over the last ten years, we’ve planted a number of perennial crops at Terra Firma: apricots, citrus, grapes, peaches, persimmons, walnuts, and asparagus. Perennial crops have an advantage over annual crops in that they don’t need to be planted every year. But they also require a level of planning and forethought that annual crops don’t. The trees, vines, etc. must be ordered a full year in advance. You don’t get a chance to learn from mistakes you make one year, and then change things the next year. And as they grow and mature, perennial crops generally produce more and more.
During 2014, we made ambitious plans to plant several different perennial crops the following winter: Asparagus, walnuts, persimmons, and mandarins. Looking back on it now, this was incredibly poor planning on our part. Each of these projects required a significant amount of time and more importantly, a two-to-three week stretch of dry weather.
In a normal wet winter, any time we get a dry spell we are already incredibly busy with our regular winter work: harvesting citrus, planting vegetables and pruning. The idea that we might also be able to squeeze in planting 4 fields of perennials was idealistic, at best. In a very wet winter like 2016-2017, we would not have gotten any of these projects done.
Instead, we lucked out. As everyone knows now, 2014-2015 ended up being one of the driest winters on record in California. We’ve never had such an easy time planting perennials as we did that year, and I would never count on it happening again that way.
Asparagus doesn’t grow on trees, but it’s a perennial nonetheless: a large mass of roots that produces spears in the spring every year and then grows into large, bushy ferns through the summer. The tops are killed by frost each fall or winter and turned back into the soil. And then the process begins again.
We started the asparagus “crowns” from seed in a small field where they were planted densely in March of 2014. We harvested the roots in the fall after the first frost using our potato digger. Then we planted them into a different, much larger field in February of 2015.
Planting asparagus crowns is not a high-tech job. The crowns are about the size of a child’s hand, and are laid in a furrow with the “fingers” (roots) spread out. Then the crowns are covered with soil using a tractor. In any other winter, we would have waited for rain to settle the soil around the plants and water them in. But in February of 2015, we had to irrigate them.
The warm, dry weather that facilitated planting the asparagus — as well as the walnuts, persimmmons and mandarins we put in — also gave them a big headstart in life. By the fall of 2015, all four crops had grown much larger than you would normally expect. Almost like getting two years worth of grown in a single season. The drought was clearly a disaster on many levels, but for our most recent batch of perennials crops, it was the opposite.
For this reason, we have begun harvesting the asparagus this year instead of waiting an additional year as would normally be the case. For the first time in over five years, all the asparagus in your CSA boxes today comes from our own farm.