Photo courtesy of Cornell University
An asparagus plant can take three years to get started, but once it starts it just keeps on going! The crown of the plant, deep underground, sleeps through the winter, wakes up in spring and sends up a crop of spears year after year, for as long as 30 years. All that time the crowns grow bigger and more vigorous and produce more spears. Vigorous is the word: under ideal conditions, an asparagus spear can grow 10 inches in a 24-hour period. Since a plant can continue to produce for years, it is important to place the crown in the optimal spot the first time. Asparagus is very difficult to transplant. Ideal is a fertile, deep, well-drained soil and full sun.
The shoots must be harvested early (at 6 to 9 inches, as a rule of thumb). If you wait too long, they will grow tall and woody and become inedible. But you must spare some spears and let them grow to full size to renew the plant. The stalks will reach up to 3 feet and branch at the top to make a cloud of thin short leaves and twigs, all of them green and hard at work capturing sunlight and feeding the crowns for the next year. The stalks make small flowers, followed by berries that are slightly poisonous to humans.
White asparagus – the most popular form in Europe – is actually no different from the green version favored in America. Commercial growers cover the plants with a mound of earth to keep the spears from light until they are picked. Growing in the dark, they produce very little chlorophyll. You can do this too, and more simply, by upending a bucket over the plant, no matter the variety.
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