Eat This

Asparagus: A Life Lesson

Green_Asparagus_New_York_11_May_2006 I never see a bundle of asparagus without being reminded of the stupidity of my younger self.

This was the younger self whose first house purchase was a decrepit 220 year-old Georgian masterpiece, with seven, count 'em, seven fireplaces and a center hall big enough to drive a truck through. The house sat on the edge of a pretty country village and was so big and square on its high foundation that it looked as if a bomb wouldn't budge it.  Inside, it was everything that I find most alluring in domestic architecture: light, rational, immense, completely innocent of all Home Depot products, and full of the ineffable mystery of age.  It was cheap, too, which was how a couple of 30 year-old idiots wound up owning it.

Its only fault was that it sat at the juncture of two ancient roads, one of which served as a shortcut out of Vermont for a series of logging trucks, farm trucks, and general rape-and-pillage vehicles, all of which would approach the stop sign at our corner by jake-breaking screechingly right underneath our bedroom window, beginning at 3:45 am on beautiful summer mornings. 

I knew the house was a mistake when I bought it, but I did it anyway, because it was such an amazing piece of architecture.  And I knew it was a mistake when I made my first vegetable garden there, so I never planted asparagus, which I'd read could not really be harvested until year three.  I was always about to move. 

That was the real mistake.  I spent 12 full years in that beautiful, noisy house and never once ate homegrown asparagus. 

Now I know better than to put any idea on hold for some future date when conditions will be more favorable.  Now I plant as if every whim were written in stone and the present moment is eternal, and of course, I will be here to harvest those hardy kiwis some nine insane years down the road when they start producing and to admire my climbing hydrangeas as a pensioneer when they finally decide to begin climbing and to enjoy that weeping willow some 50 years hence when it's a wall of weepery.

It's better to live the dream and assume that the harvest is assured, instead of pinchedly calculating the probability of happiness and refusing to risk anything when the odds are against you.  Or so I've learned from the humble asparagus.

When I made a garden at my new house in the country, which by the way, is an idyll of peeper-song never interrupted by the sound of a truck, I planted my first asparagus roots, a variety called 'Purple Passion' that Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini author Elizabeth Schneider swoons over.

I didn't follow the usual directions, which generally recommend some absurd trenching and digging program and planting the crowns in sculptural fashion on a mound well below the soil surface.  It's one of my basic principles as a gardener: Never trust anybody who tells you to dig deeper than a shovel's depth.  I suspect that deep-digging is like Scientology, a cult of self-betterment for the gullible.  Here's another of my basic principles: The longer the list of instructions, the more worthless the advice.

But I did follow instructions to the extent that I waited three full years until yesterday before a substantial harvest. Asparagus is a perennial plant, and obviously needs to settle in a bit before the gardener starts depriving it of its ability to photosynthesize for weeks on end by gobbling up every stalk.

Now, I've run across this Ohio State University Extension fact sheet which suggests that a limited second-year harvest encourages root growth.  Despite Ohio State's ungodly fondness for chemicals, I instantly trusted the sensible tone of this piece, because they don't think you need a backhoe to dig an asparagus bed, either, and because they support my late-season sloppiness in not clearing away the stalks and ferns in fall.  Asparagus?  Ohio State says, no big deal.

Of course, it is a big deal to me, but only because of the 15-year wait.  We had roasted asparagus for dinner last night, and it was sublime, with a melting texture and flavor that makes it officially one of the bigger thrills ever to come out of my vegetable garden. 

Here's my advice on the asparagus front, which is entirely worthless, given my 24 hours' experience with this crop:  Be bold.  Plant it casually.  Mulch with compost, since there's almost nothing that won't be happy with that kind of treatment.  Don't let the bed get weedy.  Venture a hollandaise sauce, despite the danger of the eggs separating.  Don't fret.  Seize the day.

Posted by on May 6, 2009 at 1:01 am, in the category Eat This.
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32 responses to “Asparagus: A Life Lesson”

  1. greg draiss says:

    I have always recommended to my customers a limited second year harvest of asparagus. Why wait prople wait so long for something so good. If it turns out to be better for the root systems so much the better.

    On the subject of instructions and their usefulness vs. worthiness:
    Same with a bottle of wine on a restaurant wine list. The longer the description the more the cost

    The TROLL

  2. Patti in NNY says:

    Holy cow, I could have written that word for word except the house is a 150 year old colonial and after 9 years I did actually plant the asparagus last year. We’re moving in a month. Talk about a tease. Think I could dig it up and transplant the rootstock?

  3. jaye says:

    Hurrah! You’re absolutely right. I’m going shopping this weekend, and asparagus is now on my list.

  4. Lzojo says:

    Great advice! I won’t hold-back any longer. I can’t keep depriving myself of the possibility to harvest asparagus, rhubarb, and other long-term perennials! Loved the story about your first house, btw.

  5. Heartening advice that applies to so many garden projects–thank you! And many happy returns to your asparagus bed.

  6. sarahammocks says:

    Beautiful–this piece ought to be set in type, printed and bound–or printed out and taped to a wall at convenient eye level.

  7. Weebiggen says:

    My first house, built in 1850, right on the road, with a huge nature preserve nearby. It was leaking in the kitchen when we saw it first. Buckets were catching drips! Drips? Streams of water from a hurricane. Speaking of water, there was a natural spring in the dirt and boulder cellar. Radon?… never tested.
    We finally did a renovation and put on an addition spending every last cent we had and then some we didn’t. The day we moved back in there was a Grand Opening party for the bait shop that opened across the road. The trucks on our road were trailering boats to launch at the nature preserve and the bait shop opened at 5am, on weekends. The trucks would come to a screeching halt in front of our house, leave the engine on and hang out in the bait shop for way too long.
    We finally sold it and moved to an isolated colonial in the suburbs. I miss the country but not the noise and water.

  8. Becca says:

    Right now I have a box of 25 waiting to be planted. Back when I ordered them months ago I intended to fill a raised bed with them. Then I read that each one needs 3′ by 10″. Damn I didn’t read the fine print or that they get as high as 5′ and could shade out my other veggies. Hmmm…I’m looking at the front yard now but was intimidated by all the fussy instructions. You have encouraged me to go forth and relax a bit. Just get the damn things in the ground! :)

  9. Wondering Woman says:

    I inherited a 12 year old 100′ x 5′ asparagus bed when I bought my house 18 years ago so it’s now 30 years old. I give it as much attention as a pet and it is simply gorgeous. This year it didn’t produce as much as normal, though still more than my family and friends could possibly eat, but my source for bunny manure has disappeared and I believe that’s what has kept it happy for so long. So if there are any rabbit ranchers in your area take advantage of it.

  10. Katie says:

    Lovely, lovely, lovely piece of writing and life advice. I wholeheartedly agree. If you wait for “the right time,” you’ll never do anything.

    Plus, I like the rogue planting advice. I am planting everything everywhere like I’m living in my pretty little house until I die. Which could be tomorrow, you never know. If something isn’t working out, I dig it up, move it and plant something else.

    Also, I’m gonna have my husband read this piece because he would like to buy a similar grand old house here in Wilmington that is at the intersection of two of our busy streets, is about a gazillion years old, is NOT cheap, and requires more handyman skills than either of us has.

  11. A totally enjoyable piece of excellent inspirational writing.
    Seize the day !

  12. LauraBee says:

    THIS is what I love about garden writing – lovely flowing words & ideas, overseeded with good advice.

  13. Rosella says:

    Michele, thank you for a beautiful, thoughtful piece of writing. When we bought this house it wasn’t so old, but now after our 34 years here, it and we are officially old. The climbing hydrangea I planted the second year is planning to remove the second floor siding and has to be firmly pruned — nay, butchered — every year in order to keep it from doing so. Sadly though the asparagus never showed up, because I followed the deep-planting instructions and it was never seen again. I was discouraged at that, and have never tried again. Is it too late to buy some and plant it this spring?

  14. ChristyACB says:

    Loved the post…loved it!

  15. We can’t grow asparagus here in northern Florida. The ground doesn’t get cold enough. Sigh!

    I read about a renegade gardener in the region who did grow asparagus here by pouring ice (from a fish market) on his bed everyday for a few months each winter.

    On the other hand we’ve had lettuce, broccoli, parsley, and other cool weather crops all winter long…

  16. Rebecca says:

    I have only been in my house a year and a half, and after picking our own asparagus at $3/lb I thought, I could grow some of that…then got scared of the digging. I am gonna go get the ‘horribly’ generic root stalks at my local grocery store and plant them. If its the same asparagus people have been eating for 30+ years, its fine with me. I was scared of high maintenance perennial veggies, but this puts me at ease.

  17. Michele Owens says:

    Patti in NNY, I moved my asparagus to a different location in the garden, and it appears to be doing fine.

    And think how brutally those crowns you order in the mail are treated! I’d certainly try moving it the way you’d move any other perennial.

    The nurseries around me, particularly the farm-oriented ones like Agway, usually have asparagus crowns this time of year. So I’d assume that it’s not too late to plant them.

  18. commonweeder says:

    Great wisdom in this piece. I wish I had gotten wise. I’m still trying to decide where to plant asparagus – 29 years later!

  19. John says:

    I break all the rules with asparagus, my yard isn’t full sun, my soil isn’t super rich, I am impatient and won’t wait in line for a movie let alone years for a spear… but I remember seeing a tv show about growing veggies years ago in another state where the guy being interviewed simply tossed the root masses into a trench and filled it in with compost. Thats what I did and things turned out wonderfully. I even found a misplaced clump of roots that had completely dried out while hiding in a corner of the tool shed. I soaked them for a few days in water and then planted them and even they came back to life. I eat half the stalks off of each crown each year. I eat the top half of stalks that grow too much when I get busy and neglect to harvest them at the appropriate size… its all good.

  20. LauraP says:

    Wonderful post – I’m so impressed that you managed to wait 3 years without stealing a taste. Such discipline! The best I can manage is to wait until there’s at least two pencil thick stalks in the clump – and then I must taste one. You know, to make sure it’s going to be good because who wants to waste another year tending a patch of bad tasting asparagus? (Like it’s ever bad, hah!)

  21. Asparagus it is!

    To the yard!

    BTW, I read in a different blog that in Lithuania, they grow it to look at it, not to eat it!

  22. This is year number two for our asparagus and we’ve harvested a few spears and eaten them right in the garden. I’ve always liked Asparagus, but the taste of fresh Asparagus right after you break it off is unbelievable. Go for it!

  23. Helen says:

    Oh my~ I live in a 112 year old farmhouse (4 non-working fireplaces) about 20 feet from a highway that used to be deserted but has sprouted dozens of subdivisions in the past few years. We just gave up trying to sell after 2 years and I’m gardening *for me* again here – I love it – and have been planning my asparagus bed.

  24. Yvonne says:

    “It’s better to live the dream and assume that the harvest is assured, instead of pinchedly calculating the probability of happiness and refusing to risk anything when the odds are against you.” I’m going to print that out and as words to live by, esp. now that I’m over 50. Asparagus was the first veggie crop we planted when we moved to the country 10 years ago. Now that I’ve given up growing veg (except for a couple of tomato plants and a Swiss chard), it’s still here to be harvested in its spring glory. Enjoyed the 1st tender spears yesterday.

  25. ‘Now I know better than to put any idea on hold for some future date when conditions will be more favorable.’ Asparagus is great, but this is inspiring. Thank you.

  26. Darius Van d'Rhys says:

    Hey, I like your Tell-A-Vision!

  27. Kelly says:

    Like Yvonne,I copied the sentence beginning “It is better to live the dream” in it’s entirety, and posted it as a little “words to live by” memo above the computer. It seems to address some issues I’m dealing with in my life at the moment. I think it resonates because it’s garden based, rather than overtly philosophical, and all my big life lessons have been learned in the garden! PS, we can’t grow asparagus in TX either, but there are compensations- yr round gardening being one!

  28. Amy Greenan says:

    What a beautiful post! I have been thinking about planting asparagus almost obsessively this year, and I think your words finally put me over the edge. Thank you.

  29. Peg says:

    Having just finished painting the inside of our fixer upper (nearly three years after moving in we finally have a real living room!), I can understand the impulse to wait or procrastinate about “improvements” that require some commitment and maintenance. I sometimes wonder if the wisteria I am training as a tree form will remain here to wildly scramble all over the decrepit garage (bringing it to the ground and requiring its removal: speed the day!); or will I be able to transplant it to our new environs if and when we move?

    I’m admiring shrubs I planted two years ago as they finally come into their own, from their humble bare-root beginnings. It’s all about the waiting, but it’s also all about the deciding to do it in the first place, whatever the future difficulties or disappointments might be.

    I just try to imagine that whoever may inherit my plants in the future will appreciate them, or pass them along to another if they decide to remove them.

  30. Lovely article! I’m a first time gardener and I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle this Christmas. I decided right then and there to try and cultivate an asparagus bed at my mother’s house, where I’m currently living. This year, we have faced foreclosure so I thought of how insane it would be to try and plant a crop we couldn’t enjoy if we ever had to move or sold the place or whatever. Then, just on a whim last week, I bought some asparagus seeds. The back of the package says to plant at a certain time, but I’m just itching to get them in the ground. I came across your blog on just a general search to find meaningful writings on gardening…and I found this article. Now I’m ready to seize that day. This Mother’s Day, we prepare a bed for our asparagus. Thank you.

  31. Amen to all that.

  32. Pete says:

    Lovely written. Remember: “Never leave that till tomorrow which you can do today” :)

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