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Friday, May 18, 2012

…And Then Sprinkle Lightly with Fresh Parmesan…

Asparagus bedIt’s asparagus season. Local asparagus, that is, tasty stalks grown right here in Washington State. Road side farm and vegetable stands entice you with their signs. “Local asparagus,” they read—and unlike the stuff imported from the four corners of the earth, “locally grown” always commands a premium price.

When I was boy growing up on a Douglas County apple orchard, our family never paid one thin dime for our  asparagus. The plant grew wild in the orchards, spread by birds and the cultivator which chopped up the crowns and replanted them everywhere throughout the orchard. (Let me know if you remember the often ridiculed Euell Gibbons, author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus fame.) Those days our family of eight had a tight budget; we cut corners wherever we could. We had access to an abundance of gratis fruit: cherries, peaches, apricots, and, of course, plenty of apples and pears which we ate fresh. When these fruits were in season, our childish summertime antics were put on hold and we children became sweaty wards of the kitchen until the crop of the day was canned, preserved, dried, and stored away for winter. “I always remember freezing asparagus on Lisa’s birthday,” Mom told me a while back. My sister Lisa’s birthday is May 6, and I imagine she had immunity on her special day, but the rest of us were sent out to forage for asparagus. In those days before herbicides withered the stalks and poisoned the root systems (the spaces between trees were “defoliated” to prevent rodent damage during the winter time), with little effort we kids could pick an entire apple box full of tender spears in half an hour. It was random harvesting: we hopped from row to row, snapped a handful of spears while keeping an eye out for the next cluster of stalks. Ten, fifteen pounds of delicious vegetable we’d haul home and when the asparagus plate made the circuit of the table at winter meals, we were instantly transported back to May, the warmth of spring, and hands sticky with and smelling of asparagus juice.

Once you’ve had something for free, it becomes a matter of principle not to pay for it again if you can help it. As I said, asparagus grows wild in Eastern Washington. Harvesting it now in orchards is problematic because of  herbicides used in routine weed management. Besides, the new agriculture of cover cropping, which necessitates frequent mowing between rows of trees, prevents asparagus from the normal cycling the plant needs to store nourishment for next year’s crop.

For several years my free asparagus came from a thirty acre field in Chelan County. During asparagus season locals from all over the county thronged to the site to pick the crop. This non-local had to get up before the sun to make it to the patch (a two and a half hour drive from Monroe) to stay ahead of the competition. Even then there were always pickers ahead of me, sometimes half a dozen or so, ballooning plastic bags in hand, on the hunt as they marched across the field through the early May morning. A few years back my environmentally-sensitive friend Nancy L and I arrived at the plot (we left town at 6:00 a.m.) around nine in the morning. Five hours later we had bagged over fifty pounds of the tasty spears between us and were back in Monroe by six in the evening.Free asparagus

A couple years ago I got to thinking about those trips east: up early, three hours there, three back, all the time, the traffic, the gas…maybe those bags of asparagus weren’t that cheap after all. It was then I remembered Old Baylor’s place (now Kelly Bolles’ Organic Farm). Aside from his strawberry business, Baylor had a nice asparagus patch. I remembered seeing a forest of lacy fronds of the seeded out stalks and marveled at how Baylor had mulched the patch with sawdust to keep his asparagus weed free. “Why not add an asparagus patch to my garden inventory?” I thought and set myself to the task.

I hauled out my stack of seed catalogs, sorted through them, and ordered fifty-two asparagus crowns, two dozen from the east coast (Vermont, I think), the rest from Oregon’s Territorial Seed catalog. Then up to Lowe’s for some 2” x 12”s. Measuring twice and cutting once, I constructed a 5’ x 8’ x 12”raised bed frame and waited for the UPS van to visit our driveway.lagged corner

In the meantime I filled the raised bed halfway with soil from the garden. The Vermont crowns arrived first (Territorial Seed’s wouldn’t show for another four weeks). I hoed three deep furrows, spread the crab-like roots of each crown along the bottom, and filled in the furrows. When the remaining crowns were shipped a month later, I repeated the procedure: six furrows’ worth of crowns. As the first spears sprouted, I added more soil, covering the tips until the bed bulged with fresh dirt.

The asparagus gardener, according to the experts, should allow his new asparagus bed three years to develop a vigorous root system before he harvests a full crop. On one of my Valley walks I stopped to chat with Tony Broers and mentioned my asparagus enterprise. Tony told me he watched growers in Toppenish plant their asparagus fields. “First, they dig a furrow three feet deep,” Tony explained, “and spread the crowns at the bottom. As the stalks grow, the grower adds more soil until the furrows are completely filled.” This technique guaranteed a deep, sturdy root system. When I heard this information, I wished I had tilled the location first, then planted the crowns below ground level, and finally set the wooden bed frame over the planted crowns, and then layered on the dirt. Had I used a little forethought, the crowns would have had an extra foot of earth in which to stretch and grow. 

This spring was the third for my new bed, and I looked forward to a full harvest of tender, delicious stalks to steam, broil or grill on the barbecue—our favorite mode of preparation. The first heads appeared in mid-April and with our recent stretch of warm, summer-like weather, we are able to pick a hefty meal every three days. To date, we’ve harvested nearly two hundred tasty stalks from the little 5’ x 8’ patch. I plan to continue harvesting until mid-June and then let the bed go to seed and replenish itself for next season.

The nursery crowns I purchased were hybrid crowns, which made me wonder if the plants would throw seed, and if any did, would the seed sprout? asparagus pods and seedTwo large fronds seeded out last summer. I harvested the berries, cast them about on top of the bed, and brought fifty or sixty ripe pods into the house where they wintered in a paper cup behind the woodstove. My plan: plant some seed indoors to see if it was viable and would sprout. Back in mid-March I planted several seeds in eggshell halves (for the calcium boost, you know) and installed them, egg carton and all, in my little seed starter. To my delight, all the seeds sprouted. asparagus sproutsAnd furthermore, the seeds I spread about on the surface of the bed sprouted as well. Asparagus propagates in the wild thanks to the dispersion of seed by birds. I decided to forego the avian route and do the work myself. Hopefully, through my efforts, I’ve  guaranteed future crops—perpetuating many more asparagus meals smothered in white and future stalks

Or hollandaise sauce, if you prefer. Again, we like our asparagus brushed with olive oil, sprinkled with garlic salt, broiled or barbecued (but not too long…leave it al dente--over the coals for three or four minutes. Roll it once, cook three or four more minutes and remove… ). Top the hot stalks with a light sprinkling of fresh parmesan and let rest until melted. But the extra, added flavor comes from the satisfaction of knowing what you served up for the evening meal came from your very own asparagus patch.  And for an “out of this world” asparagus recipe, don’t miss The Ripple’s next post.

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  1. So, I've planted asparagus in my last two homes...but haven't had a ton of success. I've gotten the wispy stuff like you have in the eggshells. This past week, I've picked some of the asparagus that actually looks like it should...only it's 2 feet tall...I'm guessing I should have picked it sooner? Once you pick it, is it done growing? Or will it signal to the plant that it should produce more?

    1. Ms. Bridget, you didn't mention if you planted asparagus from seed or mature crowns. If from seed, the "wispy stuff" is all you'll see for a while. I have plenty of wisp from the seed I scattered on the bed last fall. Hopefully, these little ferns will turn into mature crowns in the future. The three year window allows the crowns to establish themselves in the bed and supply a good crop each year. And, yes, the more you pick it, the more it grows. There comes a time, though, when you back off on the picking and allow the crown to seed out out. I'm not quite sure when this is. I know that even last summer by late July, we could still, over time, pick enough for an occasional meal. By last fall my bed was a forest of fronds, four and five feet tall (I had to stake them up). Too, I think weed control is paramount--especially in our "stout weed" environment. Thus the raised bed. I'm pleased with the results so far. Thanks for reading....TMJ