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Growing white asparagus, a garden delicacy

Posted: Thursday, February 22, 2001

POUND RIDGE, N.Y. (AP) -- White asparagus, long a European delicacy, has lately become popular also in America. Home gardeners can easily grow these so-called blanched or gourmet whites as well as the better-known green and purplish spears.

In my 40-year-old asparagus patch, I've raised white ones occasionally and enjoyed their delicate flavor, texture and elegant ivory look as a contrast to the green, which have a stronger, wilder taste.

Either color, asparagus is one of the garden's most delicious and rewarding crops, paying you many times over for the time and patience initially required to establish a productive patch.

Flavor aside, there is little difference between white and green except in the way the spears are harvested. All it takes to make spears white is to mound earth over them as they emerge. That keeps them in darkness, blocking the sun from producing the greening chlorophyll.

For flavor and tenderness, I've found the best time to harvest asparagus is when the spears are about six inches long, much shorter -- and juicier -- than the tied-up bunches sold in the supermarket.

So if you pile earth over spears to whiten them, you should make allowance for at least a six-inch growth before their tips break the surface. That's when you slip a knife underneath the mound and cut the spears at ground level. After cutting the spears, let the residual earth of the mounds just crumble onto the ground.

Meanwhile, the spears that you're keeping green are making the same growth unshielded from the sunlight and are also ready to harvest.

Time and again I've heard people say they don't grow asparagus because it takes too long -- three or four years before you start getting anything worthwhile. This is true, but the same principle applies to ornamental bushes or fruit trees, which may take even longer.

Most vegetables are annuals. From sowing to harvesting, they do their thing in one season. But asparagus and rhubarb are perennials. Plant them once and, after they're established, they'll produce year after year. You can grow old harvesting asparagus that you planted when you were young. Some patches are legendary, 100 years and older, and prized so highly in the Old Country they formed part of a marriage dowry.

Back in my 40's, I planted 16 roots or crowns. Now in my 80's, I count on an average of 750 spears a year from that modest beginning, with no work except a yearly fertilizing and mulching with salt hay to keep weeds at bay.

You can start asparagus from seed, but generally people prefer the time-saver of buying roots from nurseries or gardening catalogs. Twenty roots cost about $15. All-male varieties, like Jersey Giant and Jersey Knight, are preferred nowadays to old timers like Mary Washington because of greater disease resistance.

You plant the roots in trenches, about 2 feet apart, that you dig in the spring as soon as the ground can be worked. Asparagus is not too fussy about soil (slightly acid, pH 6.5 is best) and full sun is not needed, but the site should be well-drained and all weeds destroyed. Pick a place at one end of the garden where the eventual asparagus ferns, which can grow 6 feet tall, will not shade other plants.

Optimally, the trenches should be 15 inches deep, but don't despair if you can't go that deep. The trench should be 12 inches wide. Make a ridge of soil mixed with compost or aged manure along the bottom of the trench and spread the roots, crown up, over the ridge and about 18 inches apart. Cover the roots with the soil you originally dug up and other topsoil as needed. When finished, the crowns should be about 2 inches beneath the surface. Then water the bed generously.

The waiting then begins. A few wispy spears will appear the first year. Leave them alone to grow into ferns. A few more spears will come up the second year. Also leave them alone. You can start cutting the third year, but don't expect too much. By the fifth year, if you've faithfully fertilized and regularly destroyed weeds, you should enjoy fine harvests. This is a good time to experiment with growing white ones, perhaps mounding earth over a single emerging spear or a corner of the patch.

The cutting season lasts up to two months. In my garden, the first spears appear at the end of April. I stop cutting in mid-June, then fertilize and let the next emerging spears grow into ferns. All the growing ferns are kept green at this stage. Through photosynthesis, these tall, beautiful ferns provide root nourishment for the cycle to begin again the following spring.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: George Bria retired from the AP in 1981 after 40 years that included coverage of World War II from Italy.

End advance for Thursday, Feb. 22



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