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GARDENING : Patient Growers Spear Great Crops of Asparagus

January 22, 1994|KAREN DARDICK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ask people who have grown asparagus in their gardens, and they'll assure you that nothing compares with the flavor.

"They're so tender and sweet that they can be eaten raw in salads," said Virginia Stowers, who has been tending an asparagus bed at her Anaheim home for five years.

Asparagus is a perennial vegetable that can produce bountiful crops for 15 to 20 years. It takes several years to become established, however, and that's one reason people have been reluctant to include it in their gardens.

When homeowners swapped houses every three or four years, they weren't around long enough to reap the harvests, for it takes at least three years for asparagus beds to grow vigorously enough for harvesting.

But with the slowdown in moves, more people are seeking permanent plantings. Thompson & Morgan, a respected seed company in England and Connecticut, sees this trend continuing and is expanding its 1995 catalogue description of asparagus from 10 lines to one full page.

"It's an overlooked vegetable that belongs in more gardens," said Paul Henslid, commercial director for the firm.

Native to Europe, asparagus was cultivated in ancient Rome and Greece. Introduced to America by French settlers in the 17th Century, it became a successful commercial crop. California is one of the nation's leading asparagus producers, and Orange County is a popular growing site.

"I remember buying asparagus spears from local stands when they were grown on the Irvine Ranch," said John Donan of Cowan Heights. A past president of the Orange County Organic Gardening Club, Donan now grows his own.

So does Stan Tinkle of Anaheim, president of the California Organic Gardening Club. But he admits to a love-hate relationship with the perennial vegetable.

"I have clay soil, and asparagus really do better in sandy loam, so for a while it was a struggle to get a really good crop," he said.

For that reason, many gardeners prefer to grow them in raised beds, filled with rich, porous loam and amended with compost or well-rotted manure. It's an easy way to control water and fertilizer, as well as growth.

"Over time, asparagus can really spread, even into areas you don't want, so putting them in containers or raised beds keeps that from happening," said Phil Miller of Roger's Gardens in Corona del Mar.

If you don't want to build a raised bed, you can plant the crowns in a large plastic container with the bottom removed, Miller suggested. Sink the containers in the ground and leave the rim just above soil surface. The roots can penetrate the soil without spreading beyond their boundary, and the plants will flourish where you want them.

Now is the time to plant asparagus, and many local nurseries offer crowns of year-old plants. Although Mary Washington is the best known variety, newer hybrids have been developed recently that produce better yields.

Developed for commercial growers and only available in the last few years, UC 157 is reported to be the best variety for warm climates like Orange County's. It has excellent yields and outstanding flavor. If you have difficulty finding this variety in local nurseries, you can order it from Shepherd's Garden Seeds or Burpee Company.

Another popular variety is Jersey Giant. Like UC 157, it produces more male than female plants, which means more spears than seeds.

Asparagus is ornamental. The spears are actually shoots that produce fern-like leaves during the summer. The plants grow up to three feet tall and look graceful, so they can be used to line fences or along south-facing walls as the back border of perennial flower beds.

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These plants will produce for almost two decades, so proper planting and care now ensures plentiful harvests in years to come. The planting method is the same for all varieties. Select an area that gets full sun. Asparagus roots spread widely, so they need wide trenches--at least a foot wide and eight inches deep. Most of Orange County has clay soil, so be sure to amend liberally.

After amending, add general purpose vegetable fertilizer according to package directions, cover with several inches of soil, and then place the crowns at the bottom of the trench a foot apart. Add amended soil just to cover the crowns. Gradually fill the trenches as the spears emerge, in about three to four weeks.

Follow the same method if you grow them in a raised bed. You'll notice that after six months or a year, the soil level in the bed has dropped, so replenish as needed.

Asparagus needs watering weekly, but doesn't like soggy conditions. That's why it's important that the soil drain well to prevent rotting of the roots. The plants also need fertilizing monthly during late winter and early spring as the spears emerge and the ferns grow. Continue feeding during the growing period. If you prefer the organic method, you can use fish emulsion and/or liquid seaweed.

Renee Shepherd, owner of Shepherd's Garden Seeds, is an avid fan of asparagus and reports very good results with monthly feedings of fish and seaweed.

Let the plants follow their natural cycle. The ferns will yellow in winter, which means their nutrients have been transferred to the roots for the following spring's growth. Cut the plants to ground level.

Although you'll be eager to taste the rewards of your labor, be patient the first spring and don't harvest. The plants need the spears and leaves for their development. By the second year, you can cut several spears from each plant. But your efforts will be rewarded the next year when you'll be able to cut sweet and tender stalks every day during the entire spring.

"They're incredible plants because those spears keep coming and coming and coming," Miller said.

Sources

* W. Atlee Burpee & Co. 300 Park Avenue Warminster, Pa. 18974 (800) 888-1447 (free catalogue)

* Shepherd's Garden Seeds 6116 Highway 9 Felton, Calif. 95018 (408) 335-6910 (free catalogue)

* Roger's Gardens 2301 San Joaquin Hills Road Corona del Mar, Calif. 92625 (714) 640-5800

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