For lazy gardeners—or for anyone who wants to grow some of their own food but has no time—perennial vegetables are the answer: you plant only once and reap the harvest year after year. Rhubarb, collards, kale, and radicchio can all be grown as perennials in this climate, but asparagus stands head and shoulders above its peers. Not only is it a delicious, versatile, nutritious, and downright classy vegetable, but once the harvest is done, a bed of it produces a lovely screen of tall, airy ferns.
To start an asparagus bed, in early spring dig a fairly deep trench and add compost, manure, or other soil improvements. If you’re converting a patch of lawn, you might line the sides of the trench with boards to keep out grass roots. Then buy asparagus crowns, each of them a gaggle of wormlike roots. Male plants are generally sold because they put all their energy into making the stalk, which is what you eat when it’s a day or two old. If you do end up with some females (you’ll know them by their pretty red berries), you can dig them out and replace them with more productive males.
After mulching the bed, you need only water it in dry weather and feed it in the fall. You could even neglect it entirely and still get food, but there will be less of it.
In the first year, forego harvesting to let plants build their strength. You can take a few spears in the second year, but let most of them go to fern right away. By the third year, you’ll be able to shake hands with chilly asparagus fingers every morning until they turn gnarly in late June. And if you initially acquire 2- or 3-year-old crowns, you can harvest freely the first year without stunting the plants’ growth.
You can also hunt for wild asparagus which likes water. One spring day when you can smell the earth, try foraging at the edges of streams, ponds, or the ocean. Out of season, seek clumps of the telltale ferns, which look much like the domestic kind, and note their locations for next spring.
Some people prefer thin spears, but I find that thick ones are often tastier. To get the most from each spear, instead of snapping off and discarding the apparently tough lower end, I usually peel it; the flesh beneath the peel is tender.
Asparagus is delicious grilled, roasted in vinaigrette, braised, wrapped with prosciutto, sautéed, or lightly steamed and dipped in a sauce. But after a few weeks of eating it almost daily, fatigue can set in. Though asparagus doesn’t freeze or can especially well, the slight effort of pickling this succulent vegetable can really pay off.
The following easy recipe retains much of the fresh vegetable’s flavor and crispness. Use the crunchy spears to top a green salad, dress up a dinner plate, or garnish a Bloody Mary long after asparagus season is over.
by Joan Kocsis:
Besides writing on food and cooking, Joan Kocsis writes for students from elementary to high school, sneaking in vegetable-growing instructions whenever possible. Her asparagus bed is 15 years old.