One of the joys of early spring is the appearance of Washington-grown asparagus in the markets. Lightly steamed with a little butter or lemon juice, it is a meal in itself. Sorry, I like mine simple, without goopy Hollandaise sauce.
Washington, California and Michigan produce most of the asparagus in the U.S. The dry climate and fast-draining soils of the lower Columbia Basin around Tri-Cities are perfect for growing the crop. We should see it hitting the markets in the next couple of weeks. That’s pretty close to home but still has to be trucked to us.
Finding it locally is a challenge. When I first came to Spokane 30-some years ago, you could still buy it from farmers on the Moran Prairie. The deep sandy loam on the prairie grew nice fat spears. Alas, as interest in preserving food in the 1980s waned and land prices made farming too expensive, it disappeared. I have heard, though, that it can be found wild around old homesteads along the region’s rivers. Exactly where is often a closely guarded secret known to the lucky few.
If waiting for the trucks to deliver it or slogging through wet spring growth isn’t for you, the good news is you can grow asparagus at home. The bad news: It is time-consuming and takes a lot of space and considerable work.
Asparagus is grown from spidery roots called crowns that are only available in the spring. To do well, asparagus needs a sunny location with good draining soil at the side of a garden or in a border all its own where it won’t be disturbed or have to compete with weeds and other plants. Each crown will produce about a half pound of spears a year for several decades so you will need several. They are usually sold in bunches.
Dig a trench about a foot deep and wide. Asparagus likes loose soil. Mix several inches of good compost into the bottom of the trench and mound it up a bit. Spread out the crowns on the soil mound about 15 inches apart. At first cover the crowns with only two to three inches of soil. As the ferny shoots emerge, add more soil until the trench is full.
Don’t harvest anything the first spring and only for a couple of weeks the second and third year. This allows the plant to build a good root system. In subsequent years, you can harvest for a month or more until the spears become thin. To harvest, simply snap the spears off at the soil level.
Once the trench is full, mulch the row with shredded pine needles, bark or chopped straw to deter weeds. While the plants are fairly drought tolerant, they do benefit from a biweekly deep watering through the summer. Each spring apply a cup of balanced organic fertilizer per ten feet of row. After the first hard freeze, cut the ferns to the ground.
Now you know why you pay big bucks for it in the market.