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Groundwork: Casting Asparagus

Talk about slow food. Asparagus is for the really patient and forward-thinking gardener, but as Cindy Brown at Green Spring Gardens west of Alexandria has discovered, April showers bring May spears. (Her easy recipe for grilled asparagus rafts comes at the end of this post.) There is nothing stringy or woody about home-grown asparagus, and the flavor and texture of fresh spears are on a whole different level.

Asparagus is an Old Word herbaceous plant that has been a spring treat for at least 2,000 years. It requires patience because it takes three years before the plants are mature enough to produce a harvest, and that's planting them from crowns, not from seed (not recommended).


Watch for those first spears of asparagus. They grow quickly. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

Crowns are usually ordered from catalogs in late winter and planted in dormancy. As a perennial vegetable like rhubarb or horseradish, asparagus allows the gardener only one shot at improving the soil, so bed preparation is key to a thriving and productive stand. Preparing an asparagus bed is one of those great weekend projects for a mild winter's day. The beds at Green Spring straddle the entrance to the demonstration garden, which I'm following for the season.

I like to see a vegetable garden edged with a long bed, four feet wide and as long as you can make it. As the unharvested spears grow, they form a delicate, fernline hedge of terrific ornament.

Asparagus is easy to grow: Bury the crowns two to three inches deep and space them about 12 to 18 inches apart. They will need a sunny site, watering in drought and a commitment to keep the beds weed-free.

For a mature stand, the harvest lasts about eight weeks, beginning in mid-April. Watch for those first spears, which grow quickly and inconspicuously. Harvest at 10 inches.

Male plants (yes, they're of either sex) are generally larger and, more important, without the red berries of the female plant. The berries tend to seed, adding to the weeding needs.

What else is cropping up this week? Well, the lettuces sown in March are heading up nicely. Here's a picture of a cos variety Forellenschluss (an Austrian heirloom variety with red freckles).


Salads in the making. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

It takes about a month from sowing to reach baby stage and two months to become a mature lettuce. Also now ready for harvesting are endives, mint, chives and broccoli rabe. The rains have brought stupendous growth of leafy greens but also have delayed planting of warm-season plants such as squash and pole beans. The cucumber seeds are in, but I wonder if they might have rotted in the cool, wet soil. Cindy might have to try again after a few days of sunshine have dried out and warmed up the soil. I'm waiting for a bit of relief from the rains before putting in my tomato seedlings at home.

The Green Spring garden, by the way, is looking lovely. The golden hops are now draping the entrance arch, and red and yellow honeysuckles are drawing the first of the hummingbirds.
-- Adrian Higgins

Grilled Asparagus Rafts
4 servings

This is easy enough for a kitchen novice. You'll need 8 bamboo skewers at least 6 inches long but less than 12 inches long. It's best to soak them for 30 minutes before you plan to use them on the grill.

From Cynthia Brown, assistant director of Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria.

1 pound asparagus
1 tablespoon olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons fig balsamic vinegar (may substitute balsamic vinegar or freshly squeezed lemon juice), for drizzling

Prepare the grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to medium-low (300 degrees). If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them evenly under the cooking area. For a medium-low fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for about 8 or 10 seconds.

Have ready 8 bamboo skewers, preferably soaked, that are at least 6 inches long.
Rinse the asparagus and peel (or scrape) the green "skin" off the bottom 3 inches of each spear. (Peeling the tough skin off the bottom instead of snapping the asparagus reduces the amount of waste.)

Divide the spears into 4 equal portions. Line up each portion on a clean work surface; use 2 skewers to create each raft by threading a skewer about 1 inch from the top of spear and 1 skewer about an inch from the bottom of the spears. The spears should be close enough together so they are slightly touching each other.

Rub the asparagus with the oil on both sides, then lightly season both sides with salt and pepper. Grill for about 5 minutes, then turn over and grill the second side for about 5 minutes, or until lightly charred and just tender.

Transfer to a serving platter. Drizzle the fig balsamic vinegar over the spears while they are hot; serve immediately (on or off the skewers).

Per serving: 63 calories, 2 g protein, 5 g carbohydrates, 4 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 31 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar

Recipe tested by Bonnie S. Benwick

By Adrian Higgins  |  May 11, 2009; 7:35 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Sustainable Food  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, asparagus, gardening  
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Comments

Doesn't it take 3 years for an asparagus bed to come in? Is there anyone who will put in an asparagus bed for me? I wouldn't want to waste 3 years and then find out I screwed up.

Posted by: jimward21 | May 12, 2009 7:51 AM | Report abuse

Maybe you could do an article on growing a berry that's not one of the Big 4 (black, blue, rasp, and straw)? For example, a gooseberry or a black currant?

Posted by: jimward21 | May 12, 2009 8:07 AM | Report abuse

I was hoping that my asparagus bed, which was so strong last summer, would be ready to harvest this year, 2 years after planting, but the spears came in rather sparsely so I hope that I'm rewarded for my patience in Year 3. I only put in 12 clumps plus a wild one that volunteered elsewhere that I transplanted.

I know better now than to plant a mesclun mix. I did that this year and the best sprouter is a very spicy green that is good, but only in moderation.

Posted by: mat00 | May 12, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse

We planted Jersey Knight male asparagus seeds in the Spring of 2007 and are now reaping a wonderful harvest. We got the seeds from Edible Landscaping in Afton Virginia. I know that Adrian has mentioned Edible in his writings. We had no idea it was not recommended to plant seeds!

Posted by: cl3m3nt3_2 | May 14, 2009 7:38 PM | Report abuse

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