Posts Tagged ‘asparagus’

Scouting the Wild Asparagus

November 6, 2009

I’ve been building up a patch of asparagus in the backyard, but lately I’ve been seeing it growing wild just about every time I take the highway.  I started out taking mental notes of where each patch was, but I’ve given up—it’s all over the place, so I’m assuming I’ll be able to find some come spring.
This is an ideal time to locate a patch, though.  In the spring, the sprouts are just a few inches tall and impossible to find without coming within a few feet of it.  In the summer, when it has bushed out, asparagus blends into the other greenery.  In autumn, however, it turns a particular hue that stands out from the bleached-out stalks of the other roadside plants.  It’s hard to describe, and doesn’t really photograph well, but it’s a bit yellower than the straw-colored grasses.  It also has what Euell Gibbons (author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus, the inspiration for this article’s title) calls a “Christmas tree shape”—kind of a lacy pyramid.  If you don’t know of anyone who grows asparagus who can give you a peek at the full-grown plant, I’d seek it out.  You might even be able to convince a farmer’s market vendor to let you take a look at their fields.  Once you get a look at it, it’ll be easy to spot, even from some distance.  I’m hoping that the bushes are as easy to identify in the spring, after they’ve been under the snow for a few months.
Lately, I’ve been seeing it along highways, with one patch growing literally at the intersection of the two biggest highways on this side of the state.  In the past, I’ve found it growing along rivers, and friends have told me of patches near the Lake Michigan shores, but the highway side is the best place to start looking.
I’ll put up a proper post once I’ve found, picked, and prepared some in season, but I’ve been seeing it all over and thought I’d spur my regular readers to start seeking it out.

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Homegrown Vegetables Hall of Fame I: Asparagus

April 22, 2009

Even if you don’t like asparagus, it holds a special place in the in-season/local eating diet.  After a winter eatng cellared roots, squash, cold-frame greens, and frozen or canned vegetables, asparagus is the first real vegetable of the season in Great Lakes states.  It’s an especially fun vegetable to grow, as it sticks out of the ground looking exactly like itself.  Unlike, say, tomatoes or cucumbers, which grow for months before they yield the familiar fruits, asparagus is recognizable from the moment it sticks out of the ground.

Growing Asparagus
Asparagus is a perennial—it regrows from the roots every year—which makes it a lot more work to get started.  The easiest way to get started is to purchase crowns in the spring.  Soak them in a bucket of water while digging a trench about 8” deep.  For best results, dig some compost into the bottom of the trench—you won’t be able to till this area in the future, so make soil improvements while you can.  It’s recommended that you spread out the roots at the bottom of the trench, but in my experience, the roots tend to break off.  I usually put them in on their side, as the crowns will grow into a position they are comfortable in.
When the crowns are in place, backfill the trench about half way and water well to settle the soil.  When the asparagus begins to peek out of the soil, continue backfilling and watering until the trench is filled in and the asparagus is growing above ground.  Keep it well watered and weeded for the first year while the asparagus gets established.
It’s generally recommended that you let the asparagus grow for two or three years before harvesting so that the plants can build strength and focus on root growth.  I was able to get a few spears in my second year (last year), but this year (year three) is the first time I’m reaping a real harvest.  I get a few spears (enough for a meal) every two or three days.

Through the harvest season, the spears will get thinner and thinner as the plant weakens.  When they get to be about the thickness of a pencil, leave the plant to grow out into a bush so that it can spend the summer “recharging” for next year.
My less agrarian friends are always surprised to see asparagus that has grown out—I don’t have any pictures ready to go, but it grows into what looks like a bush, 4’-5’ tall.  It’s a beautiful specimen plant, with a few disadvantages as a landscaping element.  First, it dies back to the ground every winter and, if consistently harvested, doesn’t fill in until June or so.  Second, being a tall plant, it can cast some dense shade on neighboring plants.  In the vegetable garden, it should be situated on the North side of the garden whenever possible so that it doesn’t shade out shorter plants.
In the fall, after the asparagus has faded to its golden autumnal color, cut it down at ground level.  Mulch it well to add nutrients for next year’s growth.

Eating Asparagus
Home grown asparagus compares favorably with the store-bought variety, with the added advantage of not having stood in a tray full of tepid water for a week or more in the grocery store.  You also get a lot more of the thick, fleshy sprouts, as compared to the straggly store-bought stems.  I’ve been rolling it up in sushi, stir-frying it, and making a risotto with it.  The less time it spends cooking, the better, and it’s pretty good raw, as well—the store-bought stuff isn’t so good this way.  It’s got a unexpectedly nutty flavor.

I’ve started some asparagus from seed, but that adds yet another year to the prep period before it can be harvested.  That will be entering year two this year, so I won’t be able to compare seed stock to root stock for another several years.  Planting asparagus is a commitment, but a well-established asparagus plot can yield for decades, and there is really nothing that can compare to the first fresh vegetable of the year.

First Signs of Spring

March 6, 2008

We’ve melted off a huge amount of the nearly two feet of snow that has accumulated since our mid-70s days in January, and I’m seeing traces of edibles coming up in the yard. Normally, around this time, I would be putting lettuce, spinach, and bok choy into a cold-frame greenhouse, but a terrifically windy storm has sidelined that structure. I’ll need a good, long weekend to reassemble it, and it may be warm enough to open-seed by the time one of those come along.

Last fall, I put in three patches of rhubarb around the house. I found a woman online who was thinning her patch, and I picked up a few plastic shopping bags full of trimmed roots off her porch. One of my three spots is still covered in snow, but the other two have apparently survived both a very wild winter and my incompetent transplanting technique. This is the first time I’ve seen rhubarb sprouting, and it looks weird–like bright red button mushrooms. I’m not sure how long I’m going to have to wait to eat some, but I’m eagerly anticipating some rhubarb cobbler.

Also last year, I found some artichoke seeds at a farm supply store. Of the four seeds in the packet, one sprouted. Artichoke is not winter hardy in my area, so I planted it up against the house’s foundation in the hope that that would be warm enough to keep it alive through the winter. I upended a bucket filled with dry leaves over it as further insulation, and piled snow on top of it through the winter. I peeked during a warm day, and there doesn’t appear to be any growth yet. Time will tell if it returns or not. An eternal optimist, I’ve already purchased another packet of artichoke seeds this year. Fresh, homegrown artichokes are an enticing enough return to justify significant risk.

Asparagus is entering it’s second year, at which point the very impatient are allowed to do some very light harvesting. However, there is no sign of asapargus in the garden, yet.

Garlic, on the other hand, is looking beautiful. Last october, about the time I was putting in tulips and daffodils, I broke up some of last year’s garlic, harvested that July. I put the biggest cloves a few inches into the ground about 6 inches apart. They put up a little growth last year, and are back at it this spring. Planting them early gives them a month or two to build a root structure before winter’s freeze, at which point they go dormant. As spring arrives, the garlic is well established and ready to begin the growing season. It’s hard to do garlic wrong.

I can finally find last fall’s kale, which I’ll need to use before it starts growing again. The same goes for parsley. It won’t be long before the first of the wild greens start growing. I’m making a point this year of trying a few of them, which is slightly terrifying–most of them become unfit for human consuption at some point in their growing season, some to the point of being lethally poisonous. Should this weblog suddenly go dark, blame pokeweed.

Worm Update

Seeing as my worm post was far and away my most visited, I’ll give a brief update on my livestock. I continued to have problems with the worms congregating along the rim of the containter, although it was never as bad as the first day. I tried a number of solutions–adding water to increase moisture, adding dry bedding to decrease moisture, “fluffing” the bedding to add oxygen, and relocating the bin to adjust the temperature. I’ve settled on removing the lid and covering the bedding with a black plastic garbage bag, and it seems to be working. The lid, apparently, was a bit too airtight for the worms’ comfort, and the plastic bag fixes that without letting moisture out or light in.

Winter Foraging, and Preparing for Spring Gardens

February 9, 2008

Back in the day when human beings depended on foraging for survival, there was not, I suspect, a lot of people spending winters in the Michigan area. I started this weblog as motivation to try new local and wild foods, but my decision to start in the dead of winter may have been a little misguided. Regardless, I’ve come up with a few snowbound topics.

Rose Hips

Not quite “wild”, but definitely local–the rose bush in my backyard, the last survivor of three planted by the previous owner, bloomed fairly well this year. I dutifully dead-headed, cutting off blooms that were past their prime. This ritual stimulates the rose to continue blooming. As fall approached, I let the rose blossoms mature, lose their petals, and set fruit. The orangey, marble-sized hips remain on the bush throughout winter. They are reportedly rich in vitamin C, which is not easy to come by locally in midwinter.

I prepared the hips in the recommended manner–gather a handful, pour hot water over them, and let steep for 10 minutes. This results in a pinkish intiction that was no great pleasure to drink. It may be the variety of rose (some may taste better than others), or the quality of the hips–by the time of harvest, mine had been through several freezes and thaws, with temperatures from freezing up through the seventies and back to freezing again. Like the brussel sprouts still frozen in my backyard, which are cooking up mushy these days, the rose hips may have seen better days. I will definitely try this earlier next season, and will try new varieties, but would have to be looking scurvy in the eye to revisit the beverage I’ve just finished.

Starting Seeds

In the dank, moldy shower stall in the corner of our basement, I’ve set up a two-level greenhouse to get a head start on the growing season. It’s a pretty crude affair–two scrap lumber frames, covered in lathe slats, with some discount flourescent lighting rigs. I lined the glass door with aluminum foil to reflect the light back into the shower stall, and have all of my lights plugged into a single powerstrip, which allows for easy on-off every morning and evening. To the casual observer, it looks an awful lot like I’m growing marijuana on a commercial scale. My digital camera is not functioning at the moment, but I’d like to provide some pictures in the future.

It’s well ahead of our last frost-free date (sometime in May), but I started a few things this week. In addition to some early flowers, I’ve got spinach and lettuce, which will go into the cold-frame for an early salad crop, and asparagus. Last year, the asparagus I grew from seed was completely eaten by slugs within two days of setting it out. I then purchased two dozen year-old roots, which will be entering their second year this spring (harvest is supposed to start at the three-year mark). By starting from seed again this year, I put myself a year into the hole and risk another slug attack, but I’ll save a considerable sum of money over buying roots. I also feed into an illogical drive for legitimacy, according to which growing from seed is more respectable than any shortcut. If my seed-starting fails again this year, I’ll be humbly purchasing and planting asparagus crowns when the soil can be worked.