Ron Kujawski | Garden Journal: Asparagus worth the work, and the wait

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As with other vegetable gardeners, I am in throes of planting this year's crops, a somewhat tedious though promising task. If weather gods cooperate and I can manage to stay ahead of the weeds, pests and diseases, the rewards will be well worth the effort and the wait.

One crop that I will not have to wait for and one which at this point does not require much effort, other than harvesting, is asparagus. The pangs of anticipation were quelled last Sunday when I saw the first spear poking through the ground. By mid-week, the harvest began and now continues every other day. When asparagus spears reach a height of six to eight inches, I cut or snap them off at ground level. The advantage of snapping versus cutting is that the spear snaps off at the point of transition from tough, stringy stem to tender stem. In other words, the tough part of stem remains behind.

Since this is a well-established bed, having been planted about 10 years ago, the harvest will continue almost through the month of June. I'll know it's time to end the harvest for this year when most of the emerging spears are pencil thin and the tips are loose budded.

Harvested asparagus spears rapidly lose their sugar content and are best eaten on the day of harvest. When the family clan bemoans the daily diet of asparagus, wash the day's harvest and then stand the bunch of spears with cut ends in a container filled with one or two inches of cold water for a few minutes. Afterward, place the spears in a food storage bag for incarceration in the refrigerator. The asparagus will keep for about a week. If at that time, the clan has not yet regained its desire for steamed asparagus doused with lemony butter, asparagus and chicken stir fry, or cream of asparagus soup, freeze the spears after blanching for 2 minutes.

What's that? You do not have an asparagus bed. Well, it is not too late to plant one. Since this is a perennial crop, choose a site at the north or east edge of the garden so as not shade other crops. Prepare the soil by working in ample amounts of well-decomposed manure or compost. Add limestone if soil is acidic, i.e. has a pH below 7. (Have soil tested for pH at the University Soils Lab or by Master Gardeners at one of their spring soil test clinics). Dig an 8-inch deep by 12-inch wide trench. Place one-year old asparagus crowns (available at local garden centers) in the bottom of the trench, spacing each 16 inches apart in rows that are 4 feet apart. Spread the roots so the crowns lay flat. Then cover the crowns with two inches of soil. As the shoots grow, continue to add soil, being careful not to cover the foliage, until the trench is filled. Do not harvest any spears this first year, and only for a week next year. After that, add two weeks to the harvest time until you get to the six to eight week period.

Yes, starting a new asparagus bed is a lot of work, but after that the rest is easy.

What may not be easy but is still rewarding are these tasks:

- Harvest the large outer leaves of spinach as needed, at least until the weather warms up in late June. At that point, cut the entire spinach plant to ground level. Spinach will bolt and turn bitter once day-length exceeds 14 hours. Hot weather and close planting also promote bolting of spinach. Do not weep; plan to sow spinach seeds in early August for a fall harvest.

- Put up trellises for pole beans and cucumbers, but wait another week or two before sowing seeds of these vine crops. You may also grow melons and winter squash on trellises but be sure they are sturdy enough to support the weight of the fruit.

- Plant small fruit such as blueberries, raspberries and strawberries if your craving for fresh fruit is large and your garden area is limited. These are generally more productive and will yield a harvestable crop much sooner than fruit trees.

- Examine Turk's cap lilies, tiger lilies, Easter lilies, Asiatic and Oriental lilies for presence of lily leaf beetles. The half-inch long beetles have a bright red body and black legs and head. The adult beetles begin feeding on the foliage of these lilies soon after the plant shoots appear. Hand-pick the adult beetles but once they lay eggs and the slug-like larvae hatch, weekly applications of neem oil or a product containing the microbial insecticide, spinosad, to the foliage will control this pest.

- Begin planting gladiolus corms and tubers of cannas, dahlias and other summer flowering "bulbs." Some of these may be difficult to incorporate into existing flower borders. I have such difficulty with cannas so I just pot up mine in a large container. It seems content with such confinement.

- Plant powdery mildew resistant varieties of garden phlox (Phlox paniculata) in a sunny location and a soil rich in organic matter. Among the cultivated varieties with resistance to powdery mildew are the white flowered David, the deep pink Robert Poore, and Katherine with its lavender flower petals surrounding a white "eye." Other mildew resistant varieties to consider are: Creme de Menthe, Little Laura, Miss Mary, and Nora Leigh.




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