Asparagus is one of those vegetables that make most gardeners go a little loopy. Because store-bought can't compare to fresh-picked spears, it's a big deal when the tips emerge in the spring; in fact, many purists only eat asparagus in season.
While we have a few well-established plants in various perennial beds, happily coexisting with the lilies and the peonies, I always thought it'd be great to have a proper (read permanent) asparagus bed. So I, too, went a little loopy when my dad brought me two dozen two-year-old crowns last year.
As asparagus starts producing in its third year, planting two-year-old crowns mean we'd get a jump on the harvest. Trouble is, I had no place to plant them.
Growing asparagus requires an investment in both time and space; it's a lot of work to prepare the bed properly, and according to Barbara Damrosch in her book, "The Garden Primer," growing 50 plants (enough for a family of four) requires about 250 sq. ft. of land. (So with half the number of crowns, we'd need half that size of plot.) Because asparagus is a perennial (once established, it can produce for 15 to 20 years), it's important to prepare the soil properly before you plant.
To plant asparagus, Damrosch suggests digging trenches 12" to 18" deep and about a foot wide, free of all weeds and perennial grasses and mixed with rotted manure/compost, with mounds of soil running down the middle spaced 18" apart. Simply drape a crown (which resembles an octopus, sort of) over each mound, and with the roots laid flat cover the tips with 2" to 3" of soil. Continue to fill in the trench as the spears grow.
Needless to say, when my dad brought me the crowns I had no such plot prepared, and no time to dig one. I did, however, have a small plot in the kitchen garden, in the front row where I'd recently harvested some lettuce. Only 2 ft wide and perhaps 3 ft long the conditions were cramped, to say the least. (I may stink at math, but even I know that's nowhere near the 125 sq. ft. suggested by Damrosch.) And like the tall kids in a school photo, asparagus should never go in the front row.
My dad was amazing and he hand dug and planted each and every crown in a makeshift trench. I knew it wasn't the best place for them, but I figured I could easily move the plants next year into a more suitable permanent home. The roots wouldn't have that much time to establish, so I thought -- that's if the plants even overwintered successfully.
Well they overwintered just fine. So fine in fact that having already dug up the plants, I can offer this piece of advice: Don't move asparagus. Ever.
When I went to transplant the asparagus last month, on a sunny March morning, not only were the plants thriving and starting to send up new shoots, the tenacious roots had already formed deep masses of invasive and twisted "tentacles," making it impossible to tell where one plant stopped at the next one started.
I thought couchgrass was bad, then I met asparagus.
It was frustrating and challenging work, and despite my best efforts at a careful excavation, I lost about half-a-dozen crowns. The rest are sitting in our second fridge, wrapped in damp newspaper and waiting to be replanted in the new perennial field garden, where they will remain -- undisturbed -- for the next 15 to 20 years.