Suddenly, unannounced, tiny green nubs appear in the garden. Juxtaposed to the garlic, which so teasingly reveals itself early as a hint of the harvest to come mid-summer, the asparagus nub promises the first outdoor-grown green vegetable of the season.
So it’s no wonder that across much of northern Europe and in American towns including Stockton, California, and Hart, Michigan, the asparagus harvest is celebrated with weeklong festivals, parties and competitions. In the northern hemisphere, a freshly harvested local green vegetable is worth celebrating after a long winter of root vegetables and hearty fare.
In an era of instant gratification, growing asparagus takes perspective. After all, you have to be willing to forgo the first two years of harvests before enjoying the fruits of your labor. Many gardeners choose to skip the opportunity to grow asparagus because of that commitment of soil for one to two years. But, as years slip by, it is clear that one to two years is nothing compared to the joy of cultivating your very own asparagus. There is something permanent about growing asparagus. It is a commitment, an acceptance of planting your own roots and staying for a while.
Asparagus is a member of the lily family. While not completely known, its culinary use dates back to the ancient Greeks. However, it is the Germans who have taken asparagus growing to new heights, in particular white asparagus. There are special fields dedicated solely to growing white asparagus. Oddly enough, white asparagus is the same as green asparagus but grown without the sun. The plants are mounded, like potatoes, which also helps them retain water, producing a delicate, sweet flavor.
An avid Great Barrington gardener, who wishes to remain unnamed, relishes her asparagus harvest. She has family in Germany and embraces their enthusiasm for the mighty asparagus. The lore in Germany is that asparagus picked in the morning is all devoured by lunchtime. Our mystery gardener eats asparagus for every meal for an entire month—imagine fresh asparagus omelets, lunchtime asparagus salads and the traditional German asparagus dinner, served with hollandaise sauce alongside boiled potatoes and three varieties of ham, including Black Forest. Said gardener will not pick the asparagus until the water to cook it is boiling, suggesting that the flavor is at its peak just minutes after it is picked. She uses an asparagus steamer, which is designed to cook the stem while gently steaming the delicate flower.
During its peak season an asparagus plant can produce spears for six to seven weeks. In the early part of the season expect to wait four to five days between pickings; as the days warm up, a plant can yield spears every 24 hours. Asparagus spears can grow right before your eyes—as much as 10 inches in a 24-hour period.
As with most gardening, one obtains sage advice from other gardeners. It is said that sprinkling kosher salt on your plants produces better plants. Our mystery gardener swears by it, but has no idea why it works!
While the season may announce itself subtly then produce wildly toward the end, it leaves us with gorgeous, fern-like plants that produce red berries in the summer months to enjoy as the plant produces nutrients for next year’s harvest. Isn’t nature grand?
So what are you waiting for? Get your asparagus crowns planted. Three years from now you can experience the magic of the mighty asparagus in your garden. And if you need a tad more incentive, asparagus is an excellent companion plant for tomatoes. Asparagus can help kill tomato-threatening nematodes, and the tomato repels the asparagus beetle.
Carole Murko is a home cook, writer and host of “Radio Heirloom Meals” on Robin Hood Radio (NPR) at 91.5 FM in Sharon, Connecticut. She has hosted and produced TV specials for PBS. HeirloomMeals.com