Asparagus seen recently at a farmers market. Asparagus doesn’t keep well and should be cooked and eaten within a few days of harvesting. ANDREW MESSINGER
The red oval in this picture shows the site of the original Seven Pines asparagus, or it may have been just an asparagus that got loose decades ago. Research show that the kitchen garden for the hotel was just to the right. ANDREW MESSINGER
The remains of the first generation of seed-grown Asparagus o. ‘’Seven Pines" after several years of production. It isn’t fond of clay soil (which it’s in) and may have been overharvested. But each year it throws up five or six additional stalks, and next year it may be harvestable. ANDREW MESSINGER
An asparagus patch found along a stone wall on an old farm that’s now an estate. The "ferns" have died back revealing hundreds of red fruits that contain the hard black seeds that can be grown and experimented with. ANDREW MESSINGER
This is an inedible form of asparagus (Asparagus densiflorus Sprengeri) that’s often used as a houseplant. In the trade, it's often called an asparagus fern, but it loves full sun, not shade. ANDREW MESSINGER
Asparagus is one of the few vegetables that we can grow that’s a real perennial. This means that when properly taken care of, it will return year after year for a decade or more. Plant it once, and it comes back every year.
We also grow several varieties of asparagus as houseplants. All are in the same family, but each is a very different species with the edible variety belonging in the A. officianalis group. But since I don’t like it as a vegetable, I’d never grown it except at work where I had a dedicated vegetable gardener. That all changed a number of years ago with the whole story going back to the middle 1800s at a Catskills hotel called the Seven Pines.
I discovered that while it was called the Seven Pines, the seven stately evergreens that lined the drive were indeed blue spruces — and five of them still remain. But I was out on a mission to find some larches for a piece I was writing. There in the middle of the field I thought I’d spotted some baby larches that had just dropped their needles.
I summoned up some courage to trek through the field that I know is loved by the deer; I’m just a bit shy about tick bites. Sprayed down, I ventured 100 yards from the truck and was amazed that what I had spied were not young larch trees that had shed their needles but a couple of patches of asparagus.
This totally sidetracked me until I did a bit of research and found that the spot was probably the kitchen garden for the old hotel, and the asparagus had simply been hanging out for 100 years or so, undisturbed. Then the light bulb went off: the browned “fern” stems were covered with hundreds of red asparagus fruits. I grabbed a cupful and brought them home.
One of the tricks to getting asparagus seed to germinate is to let the red berries shrivel and dry, then open each berry and extract the small black seeds. These seeds were stored over the winter then put into cells and germinated. With a bit of warmth and the soil kept moist, in about a week tiny green shoots began to emerge, and I had 144 little asparagus plants. But what did I really have? A weed or a gastronomic delight? It was going to take a few years to find out.
Most of the seedlings were sold at a local plant sale and named Seven Pines asparagus. I saved a few seedlings and put them in my trial garden with the knowledge that seed-grown asparagus can be quite variable when it comes to taste. My alternative was to use them as perennials in my long perennial bed.
Year one, nice foliage but no cutting allowed. Year two, even nicer foliage and I cheated taking two stalks for my wife to cook and report back on. I believe her remark was, “Excellent, very tasty.” Year three, there was a great harvest, and this continued for several more years until nothing. That’s right, nothing. One year only a single shoot returned, and the plot had either gone dormant or died out. What do I know? I’m just a horticulturist. My clay soil may have been the issue while your sandy soil, if well amended, can be a blessing.
Fast forward to this year and the patch is beginning to revive with some TLC, but since the plants were females (yes there are male and female asparagus plants) they have dropped their fruits and the seeds have managed to move about the trial garden. This year we were able to harvest a dozen shoots. My wife loved them. Did I tell you I hate asparagus as a vegetable?
Interestingly, in doing my asparagus research I found that there are people who have traveled the country to hike on abandoned railroad tracks and rights of way. And what do they find? Wild asparagus. For some reason it grows along abandoned rail lines. Maybe when the rails were laid the workers planted some seeds. Who knows?
Ah, but there’s asparagus as an ornamental. The ones we grow indoors and call asparagus ferns aren’t ferns at all but asparagus — though different asparagus species from the ones we eat. When I managed the Jacob’s greenhouse at Southampton College, we had a great asparagus collection that included a blue asparagus from Egypt. So my asparagus adventures actually go back almost 45 years.
Yes, there are male and female asparagus plants. Some believe that the males taste better, but they are certainly more productive as they tend to produce crowns that have shorter and more numerous shoots. The fact is that both the male and female plants produce edible “spears.” Most of the hybrids that you can buy as crowns, like Jersey Giant, are all males that produce no seeds.
Another interesting fact: Asparagus is salt tolerant, so those with ocean and bay exposures won’t get burned plants.
Most asparagus crowns are planted early in the spring, though some have had success with early fall planting when the crowns are available. The crowns are available at most garden centers and by mail from most vendors like Territorial Seed and Johnny’s. They prefer cold winters so mulching isn’t an issue. The asparagus bed needs to be planned in advance (like now) and should be in a corner of the garden where the tall plants won’t shade others and where they won’t get disturbed for many, many years.
Crowns should be allowed to grow for two full growing seasons before any harvesting takes place. This allows the “ferns,” or foliage, to feed the roots enabling them to grow deep and strong. The first harvest can begin two years after planting.
Asparagus can also be grown from seed, and if you can get a hold of some seed, they can probably be started in cells now, then set out in a prepared plot at the end of the summer. Two seeds per 2-inch cell should be a good start. Grow them in bright light to full sun and plant when they fill the cell with roots but not later than early September.
You can still get seed of the Millennium F1 hybrid from Johnny’s, so there’s a summer project for you that will yield dividends for quite a while. Millennium is a heavy producer that is said to be better than Jersey Supreme. Crowns (which are sold out) go for $50 for 25. Seeds on the other hand are about $24 for 100 seeds. Seedlings should be 8 to 10 weeks old before planting so you can still get this done this summer.
When established, the crowns should be lightly mulched with hay, straw or leaves. This controls weeds and keeps the soil cool and reduces water loss from the soil.
An established asparagus bed should be fertilized once or twice (in sandy soils) a year. At work our bed was top dressed with a high-quality compost before the spears emerged in early spring then later in the season a light application of 5-10-10 can be applied or an organic fertilizer with the same ratio of nutrients (1-2-2).
Always keep the weeds under control as the weeds will suck up the fertilizer and be the host for insects that you don’t want to attract. The beds can be mulched in the winter, and while this benefits the bed by keeping the soil temperatures even, the mulch can also attract voles who may feed on the crowns.
Asparagus beetles will chew and damage emerging spears, and in small patches these beetles can be controlled by hand. With a small container filled with water and a few drops of dish washing liquid, simply tap the spear so the beetles fall into the liquid. Neem oil also seems to work on managing the beetles, and it won’t kill the beneficial insects. Large infestations can be treated with an organic pyrethrin spray, but don’t use this in hot weather and keep in mind that pyrethrin should be used early in the morning or in the early evening to prevent application on beneficial insects.
I keep on forgetting to put some asparagus in my long perennial bed. I think the tall ferny foliage would look quite cool. Better yet, the small starry white flowers are another focal point followed by the red berries late in the season into the fall. Remember though, male plants won’t produce seeds, so you may have to experiment to find the right females. Keep in mind that a healthy asparagus plant that is grown as an ornamental can get 5 to 8 feet tall. That means the back of the border.
From crowns or from seed, asparagus can be fun, beautiful and, I hear, even delicious. Easy to grow with some planning, it can do well out here and for a long, long time. Get the seed or order the crowns in the spring but get the prep done now. Keep growing.
Many of you have second homes out here and may live elsewhere during the week. It’s important to keep up on the East End weather while you’re away though. It can be sunny out here and pouring in Manhattan. It can be pouring or there can be dense fog out here while it’s sunny in Manhattan. Weather Underground allows you to view weather stations based on ZIP codes, so you can get a “view” of what’s going on when you’re not here. If you use their WunderMap function you can get current temperatures, wind and precipitation and you can look backward and into the future for about 12 hours. You can start here then explore the site and functions: wunderground.com/wundermap.
The mosquito plant is back. It’s supposed to repel mosquitoes and protect your patio, deck or party to keep these blood suckers away. It’s about as close to a scam as you can come. It doesn’t work. It may look nice, and if you put your nose on it, it smells nice. It still doesn’t work, and it’s a scam. It’s a scented geranium. It has no deterrent effect though.
Got a tomato plant that’s tall and leggy before it’s planted? No problem. Tomatoes are one plant that can be planted deep and the stem will send out roots. Too deep though, and the stem may rot. No problem. Take your leggy mater and lay it on its side, horizontally. Leave it like that for several days until the end turns up and becomes vertical. Now, dig a horizontal trench and plant it with the vertical end pointed toward the sky. The plant will reroot and continue to grow vertically.
One fine body…