As­para­gus: healthy diet in a spring sprout

Alberta Gardener Magazine - - Contents - By Dorothy Dob­bie

Love your first feed of as­para­gus in spring­time? No won­der. Here's a short list of the health­giv­ing prop­er­ties of this lit­tle green mir­a­cle: vi­ta­min A, vi­ta­min C, vi­ta­min E, vi­ta­min K, vi­ta­min B6, cal­cium, mag­ne­sium, zinc, pro­tein, thi­amin, ri­boflavin, rutin, niacin, folic acid, iron, phos­pho­rus, potas­sium, cop­per, man­ganese and se­le­nium! It is also a very good source of fi­bre in the diet. A serv­ing of four spears is only 10 calo­ries.

As­para­gus has been a favourite from the very ear­li­est times. There is even an an­cient recipe at­trib­uted to Api­cius, a Ro­man gourmet who lived some­time around the first cen­tury AD.

As­para­gus is grows wild across Canada, but it is com­mer­cially grown in On­tario, Man­i­toba, Que­bec and British Columbia.

As­para­gus can be grown from seed, as trans­plants or from crown cut­tings sold by nurs­eries. It is hardy to zone 2 and prefers a cool sea­son cli­mate.

If you de­cide to grow from seed, you will need to start some­where around mid-fe­bru­ary. You can buy seeds from Ve­seys at www.ve­seys. com. Soak the seeds for two hours. Seeds ger­mi­nate at tem­per­a­tures rang­ing from 25 to 30 C. As­para­gus roots go down six to 10 feet out­doors, so even seeds planted in­doors should be started in a deep pot. Sow about 1 1/2 inches be­low the sur­face. Seeds take two to eight weeks to sprout, so be pa­tient.

Out­doors, in Al­berta, you will prob­a­bly be plant­ing from one-yearold crown cut­tings, which means you should have a har­vest about two years later. You can be­gin about four weeks be­fore the last frost date or as soon as the soil can be worked.

Dig a hole six to 12 inches (the depths vary ac­cord­ing to con­di­tions – too shal­low and the plants may stay dor­mant and not pro­duce, too deep and they may not come up). A good sandy soil amended with com­post is best.

Trans­plant seedlings to your well pre­pared site with plenty of com­post and in full sun or par­tial shade. As­par-

agus does best in a fer­tile, light, welldrained site that warms up quickly in spring.

If you started the plants in­doors, seedlings should be planted af­ter the last frost, about two to 2.5 feet apart. As­para­gus should be planted in holes six to eight inches deep in sandy soils, and five to six inches down in heav­ier soils. The deeper the hole, the thicker the spear, so seedlings planted at six inches deep will pro­duce thicker spears than those at four inches deep.

Do not fill in the plant­ing holes when you drop in the trans­plant or crown cut­ting. Rather, cover the crowns with an inch or two of soil, top­ping them up, with­out bury­ing them, as the plant grows. Wa­ter fre­quently and thor­oughly. As­para­gus roots will reach a depth of 10 feet when ma­ture if con­di­tions are right.

Be pa­tient. For seed-grown crops, you should not har­vest un­til the third year. As­para­gus grown from trans­plants or crown cut­tings may be har­vested a year ear­lier. Har­vest when spears are six to eight inches long by bend­ing them and snap­ping them off. Or you can care­fully cut them with a knife about one inch be­low the sur­face of the ground, be­ing care­ful to avoid cut­ting emerg­ing shoots. Dam­age to emerg­ing shoots will stop fur­ther growth. Har­vest in the morn­ing when spears are cool and more easily snapped. Har­vest ev­ery day or two and use as soon as pos­si­ble as qual­ity rapidly de­te­ri­o­rates.

Eat raw or steam, or heat rapidly and do not over­cook. The nu­tri­tional value de­creases at tem­per­a­tures over 40 de­grees C or 104 de­grees F.

Once har­vest is com­pleted, al­low the ferns to grow up to re­plen­ish the roots for next year's crop. The ferns are at­trac­tive, de­vel­op­ing small flow­ers and red berries that birds en­joy. In fall, af­ter the first hard frost, you can cut back the tops or al­low them to stand to col­lect snow as a mulch over win­ter. Neat gar­den­ers can add a mulch of straw or chips if they wish, al­though once the plants are es­tab­lished, this will prob­a­bly not be nec­es­sary.

Fer­til­ize in spring and again af­ter har­vest. The plants will last 20 to 25 years be­fore need­ing re­fresh­ing.

A well-known va­ri­ety is ‘Martha Wash­ing­ton’. 'Guelph Mil­le­nium' is an­other and ‘Jersey Gi­ant’ is also a favourite.

As­para­gus in the field.

To har­vest as­para­gus, knife cut­tings can be made be­low the sur­face of the soil.

It's hard to go wrong with fresh as­para­gus.

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