Just a few decades back, before perishable goods were shipped thousands of miles on planes, there were a few perennial indicators that winter was ending and spring had begun. Some were flowers like daffodils and crocus. But one was a vegetable. Now it is ubiquitous in stores and restaurants almost twelve months of the year, harvested all over the world and flown in for our convenience.
Asparagus is one of a handful of vegetables that are perennials — producing for multiple years from a rootball that grows back each year. It generally takes three years to produce the first commercially viable harvest from an asparagus field. This contrasts rather favorably with other perennial (fruit) crops such as peaches (4 years), apricots, apples and plums (5 years), and citrus (6 years or longer).
Asparagus grows from seed into a hand-sized root in a single season. It is then usually dug up and planted in a different field, the roots spaced much further apart. One-year old roots are available from nurseries, but not necessarily in the quantities that farmers need.
First- and second-year asparagus spears are thin, spindly and tough. You can pick a few from each plant, but if you harvest too many, the plant will not produce enough carbohydrates to grow its roots. It’s best to leave the plant unharvested.
Once asparagus root crowns are big enough, they will make dozens of spears each season. During spring harvest, there is normally one or two spears long enough to harvest each day per plant. Once the roots start pushing up fewer spears, it’s time to stop harvest and let the spears grown into tall, fern-like fronds. In the fall they produce large amounts of red berries containing seeds. The ferns are killed by frost, and cold weather sends the roots into dormancy for the winter.
It’s been almost ten years since we lost our last asparagus field to a root disease. Ever since we have procured asparagus for your boxes from neighboring farms. But by next year we hope that will change.
In 2014, we planted seeds and grew our own roots, and dug them that Decem ber with our potato harvester. We replanted them into a different field in late January of 2015. They liked their new home and grew vigorously all season. At last year’s Farm Day in November, a small group of TFF subscribers got to visit the lush, shoulder high plants full of red berries and covered with ladybugs.
We look forward to once again harvesting our own asparagus for our subscribers. In the meantime, enjoy the guest ‘gras.