Asparagus – Queen of Spring
by Stacey Tress
Asparagus is one of the most valuable perennials for the garden. It is harvested starting early in May, when fresh vegetables are scarce. Plants are not difficult to grow and will thrive under a variety of conditions. A good supply of water will help to produce a large yield of juicy, crisp shoots for immediate use, quick-freezing, fermenting, or canning. With proper care, an asparagus bed should produce for twenty years or more.
The most common type of asparagus is green, but you might see two others in supermarkets and restaurants: white and purple. The white asparagus is produced by “hilling” up the shoots with sand to block out the light. The most important varieties of asparagus recommended for Saskatchewan are Washington strains and Viking.
Asparagus has long enjoyed the reputation of being a medicinal plant. Its botanical name officinalis means “from the dispensary.”
Five Heath Benefits of Asparagus
- It’s loaded with nutrients: asparagus is a very good source of fibre, folate, vitamins A, C, E, and K, as well as chromium, a trace mineral that enhances the ability of insulin to transport glucose from the bloodstream into cells.
- This herbaceous plant—along with avocado, kale, and Brussels sprouts—is a particularly rich source of glutathione, a detoxifying compound that helps break down carcinogens and other harmful compounds like free radicals. This is why eating asparagus may help protect against and fight certain forms of cancer, such as bone, breast, colon, larynx, and lung cancers.
- Asparagus is packed with antioxidants, ranking among the top fruits and vegetables for its ability to neutralize cell-damaging free radicals. This, according to preliminary research, may help slow the aging process.
- Another anti-aging property of this delicious spring veggie is that it may help our brains fight cognitive decline. Like leafy greens, asparagus delivers folate, which works with vitamin B12—found in fish, poultry, meat and dairy—to help prevent cognitive impairment. In a study from Tufts University, older adults with healthy levels of folate and B12 performed better on a test of response speed and mental flexibility. (If you’re 50-plus, be sure you’re getting enough B12: your ability to absorb it decreases with age.)
- One more benefit of asparagus: It contains high levels of the amino acid asparagine, which serves as a natural diuretic, and increased urination not only releases fluid but helps rid the body of excess salts. This is especially beneficial for people who suffer from edema (an accumulation of fluids in the body’s tissues) and those who have high blood pressure or other heart-related diseases.
Asparagus contains a unique compound that, when metabolized, gives off a distinctive smell in the urine. Young asparagus contains higher concentrations of the compound so the odour is stronger after eating these vernal shoots. There are, however, no harmful effects, either from the sulfuric compounds or the odour!
(1) Soil Preparation
The best type of soil for asparagus is a deep, rich, well-drained, sandy loam. Heavy (clay) soils are reasonably satisfactory if the top layer is of good depth (15 to 20 cm/6 to 8 in) and an abundance of organic matter has been incorporated into the soil. Asparagus is a heavy feeder and requires a rich soil that is well prepared before planting.
A deep soil is necessary because asparagus is a deep-rooted plant. Good drainage is essential, and while flooding for a short time in the spring may be permitted, the surface water must be removed quickly during the growing season. The ideal site should have full sun exposure.
The incorporation of a high-phosphorus fertilizer is helpful the summer before planting. The second number in the fertilizer formulation indicates phosphorus percentage, so choose a fertilizer with a higher second number, such as 3-15-0. Natural sources for phosphorus include rock dust or colloidal phosphate and bone meal. Also at this time, large quantities of well-rotted manure should be worked deeply into the soil.
Asparagus is propagated from seed by the nurseries and can also be similarly propagated by the home gardener. It is generally more convenient, however, to buy the plants. The purchase of two-year-old plants permits a saving in time of two years. The seeds of asparagus look like red berries. A few years ago my husband wild foraged some asparagus seed. He successfully grew some new plants from seed which are now in the garden on their second year. New plants are still surprisingly tiny compared to an established clump or planting of asparagus.
Plant asparagus early in the spring, before growth occurs from the crown. Dig a hole about 15 cm (6 in) deep. Place a small mound of earth in the hole; then set the plant on the mound so that the roots hang down and are evenly spread out in the hole. Cover the crown with 5 cm (2 in) of topsoil. As the shoots elongate, add more and more soil until the hole is completely filled. The top of the crown (roots) should be 10 to 13 cm (4 to 5 in) below the soil surface. The between-row spacing is 80 to 90 cm (2-1/2 to 3 ft), with an in-row spacing of 38 to 46 cm (15 to 18 in). Most established asparagus plantings that I’ve seen look more like clump plantings. Maybe they once started out in rows and over the years the rows have blurred with volunteer shoots.
(4) Harvesting—this paragraph is long and wordy but it’s imperative that you follow these directions to ensure the longevity of your asparagus plant! Don’t be greedy!
The crown and root system must be allowed to develop before harvesting begins. The home gardener may be tempted to do some harvesting the first two years after planting. But bear in mind, that removing spears will result in stress that will weaken the plants. Asparagus can be harvested for a two-week period the third year after planting two-year-old crowns. During the fourth and subsequent years, a full cutting season of four to six weeks is permissible.
It is not advisable to continue cutting well-established asparagus plants after the end of June in any year. During the cutting period, the plant draws on food reserves stored in the root system during the previous growing season. The top-growth must be allowed to develop after July 1 in order to replace the food stores in the fleshy roots. Excess harvesting in any year puts additional stress on the plant and may result in reduced yield the following year.
The cutting season usually begins between May 1 and May 15, depending on growing conditions. Under very favourable conditions, daily cuttings may be required, but every second day is usually sufficient. The shoots should be cut when they reach a height of approximately 5 cm (6 in). They should be cut just below ground level. Take care not to damage new shoots still underground. The growth takes place near the tip of the shoot. Injuring this tip, even while it is below the soil surface, will usually stop the growth of the shoot and prevent its appearance. Cutting is best done with a knife that is pushed into the ground so that it severs the spear about 2-1/2 cm (1 in) below ground.
Once harvested, asparagus spears deteriorate rapidly unless kept in a moist, cold atmosphere. An expected fresh storage life is about one week. For optimum quality, the spears should be eaten raw, steamed, canned, fermented, or frozen as soon as possible after harvesting.
(6) Winter Preparation
Watering should continue until late fall. The top growth can be left standing over winter; it acts as a snow trap to replenish moisture reserves in the soil. In open exposed areas, 10 cm (4 in) of mulch applied in late fall will help to overwinter the asparagus plants.
Stirred Eggs with Gravlax and Asparagus
6 oz chopped gravlax (cured salmon)
6 asparagus spears, trimmed of woody ends and chopped
1 shallot, finely grated
6 tbsp heavy cream
1-1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 425º F. Butter six 6 oz ramekins and set them on a baking sheet.
Evenly distribute the gravlax and asparagus among the ramekins. Crack open the eggs one at a time and drop one into each ramekin. Sprinkle a bit of the grated shallot over each egg, pour over 1 tablespoon of cream, and sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon of black pepper.
Carefully transfer the baking sheet holding the ramekins to the oven and bake for 8 to 12 minutes, until the yolks are done to your liking. Baking the eggs for 8 minutes yields runny yolks, while baking for 12 minutes yields firm yolks. Serve immediately.
Recipe from The Nourished Kitchen, Jennifer McGruther
Asparagus with Mushrooms
1 lb fresh asparagus
2 tbsp oil
1/2 cup finely chopped onions
2 cups sliced mushrooms
1/4 cup water or vegetable stock
1 tbsp rice vinegar or lemon juice
1 tbsp shoyu (soy sauce), or to taste
1-1/2 tsp arrowroot
Time: 20 minutes
1. Clean the asparagus and either cut the stalks into 1-1/2 inch pieces or leave them whole, as desired. Steam until just barely tender.
2. Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the onions and mushrooms and saute until tender.
3. In a small bowl, mix together the sauce ingredients. Pour the sauce over the sauteed mushrooms and onions. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens. If the asparagus is cut into small pieces, add it to the mushrooms and sauce. Mix well. If the asparagus is whole, place it on individual serving plates and spoon the sauce over the asparagus.
Recipe from Foods that Heal, Dr. Bernard Jensen
Stacey Tress, a Holistic Nutritional Therapist (HNT), lives in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, with her husband and two daughters. She is the owner of Garden Therapy Yorkton which offers skill-building workshops, design work, organically-grown produce, and more! To learn more, please contact Stacey at 306-641-4239, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, www.gardentherapyyorkton.ca, or on facebook. Also, see the display ad on page 9 of the 21.1 May/June issue of the WHOLifE Journal.