Friday, 1 August 2014

Growing asparagus in Brisbane - Winter update!

Years ago I bought a couple of asparagus crowns from a guy at the markets. I'm sure he gave me detailed instructions at the time, but all I could remember was to plant them where you intend to keep them and then not to cut them for a few years to give them time to establish.

Its been a few years and I have found the asparagus to be pretty happy in its spot in the vege garden. It gets watered regularly and gets a dollop of compost each time the pile matures and seems to be growing its famous ferny leaves very well....

But I was hoping to grow the eat-y bit!

A bit of a google search later and the secateurs and I went into the vege garden...

Here's what I did...

January 2014 (Winter update below this post)

 
The asparagus is the big ferny thing in the black barrel in the centre of the picture.
Its gotta be a metre and a half high.
Last winter I got up the guts to cut it back when it died off and it did grow back in the Spring. I thought for a few months that I might have killed it.

 
As you can see, the stalks coming out of the ground are about the same thickness as the ones I would buy in the shop - except that they are 2 foot long!

 
I have two crowns in this pot. Apparently there are male and female plants. The thicker stalks are usually associated with male plants. The males grow the thicker stalks as they don't have to put energy into producing flowers and seeds! Have a look at your plants in Autumn. If it has red berries (which are poisonous by the way) then its a female plant. If a big harvest is what you are after, then male plants are they way to go, they spend all their time producing leaves rather than putting any energy into seeds.
   
                           
I believe that you are meant to primarily meant to cut your asparagus in the spring when the shoots first appear. In my case I was so grateful to see the new spears and that I hadn't killed the plant that I let them go. 
 
However, I decided to try an experiment and cut all the foliage down and then harvest the stalks for a few weeks before letting the plant grow its leaves and replenish its crown. Its January 2014, here at the moment, so I will harvest for maybe a fortnight and then let it go again for the year.
 
Next year, I will start harvesting in Spring (September/October) when the shoots first appear for a fortnight and then let it go and do its things.

 
Asparagus can live for 20 to 30 years! So make sure you plant it somewhere where you wont need to move it for a long time! I only have 2 crowns - apparently you will need 25 plants to feed a family of four for a season....
 
I guess I will just be feeding me then!

 
Within 4 days I had new stalks growing. Its a real challenge to pick them at their prime and just eat them straight out of the garden rather than waiting a few more days for some others to appear to make a meal from them. I'm finding that once they stick their heads out of the ground, they are ready in 2-3 days. I'm getting five or six spear every two to three days out of two plants. I wont be setting up a business anytime soon!

 
By traditional asparagus standards, I have left my harvest a bit long. My first three spears are probably a bit long. I did the classic beginners mistake of waiting for other spears to appear.

 
You have to do something special with so few asparagus spears and so the few that made it to the kitchen got placed on the top of a homemade pizza!


Asparagus like lots of compost and water but not to be in standing water so make sure the spot drains well. The idea seems to be to build up the size of the crown for a few years by letting the plant do its thing in the spring and summer and when it naturally dies off in the Autumn/Winter to cut it back then. Mine grow easily to 5-6 foot, so again, make sure its some where you can cope with it. Its a big plant for a long time.

Once the plant is established, you can cut the spring growth for a few weeks (up to four weeks) when it appears. Each year as the crown gets bigger and has more food stored, you can extend your cutting season up to a maximum of eight weeks. If you cut them for extended periods of time (like all spring and all summer and into autumn) you will deplete the crown of all its food and the plant will die. It needs its leaves to get to the sun and to photosynthesise with enough time to store enough food to not only get it through winter but to feed you in the Spring!

They are a hungry plant and need lots of compost and compost teas - so feed 'em up and make sure they have plenty to eat and drink. They grow fastest when its hottest - so make sure they have lots of water so they stay tender.

I haven't cut mine far enough down. It seems I should be cutting them at ground level not the few inches above that I have done as you can see in the pictures. But be careful not to cut the new spears coming up that you might not be able to see...

 

 
Can you see the thin stalks branching off the cut stalks? I think that's a bad thing... I think they will be putting energy into getting those wee shoots to the sky and not producing fat little spears for me!

 
Bad photo, but easier to see what I mean.
I am still trying to decide weather I should just let them grow or cut it off to ground level...
I was only going to harvest for 2 weeks and then let the plant go but I'm not sure if I should cut these shoots off or just let it do its thing. I only have 2 days left of my harvest.
 
 
For the record, here is my harvest amounts for these two crowns.
 
2014
Jan 11: Cut back asparagus
Jan 16: cut 3 spears
Jan 17 cut 2 spears
Jan 18: 2 spears
Jan 19: 1 spear
Jan 20: 2 spears
Jan 21: 0 spears
Jan 22: 2 spears
Jan 23: 2 spears
 
It looks like I'm getting one spear a day out of each plant. I can see why you would need 25 to feed a family of four now!


There are some good websites about growing Asparagus to check out for us beginner asparagus farmers:

Organic Gardening - asparagus

ABC - growing asparagus

Back Yard Vegetable Growing - Asparagus

The Australian Asparagus Council - this one is very interesting!

Good luck with your asparagus growing!

July 2014 Update:
Once I stopped cutting the spears for the table in January, the asparagus plant stayed green and happy all summer. It didn't seem to have any problems growing leaves from those funny side shoots. It became as large as it was the previous year. I wanted to cut it back once I knew it was ready to hibernate in the Autumn but never seemed to be ready to die back...! I imagined the leaves would go yellow/brown and the plant would naturally start the hibernation process. I assume that since we had an incredibly mild Autumn and now incredibly mild Winter, the asparagus didn't need/want to hibernate.

We had a bit of a cold snap - it went right down to 10 degrees overnight! - and finally the asparagus decided to give in!

 
The tips of the plant started dying off first, and then the plant generally started to look yellow.
 

I cut them off at a height that was easy for me to manage and then when I had given all the foliage to the chooks to check through, I cut it right back to nothing - under the soil. There were many dead stems from my earlier harvest and they just pulled out.


 I cleaned all the weeds and grass out of the bed as I understand that asparagus doesn't like any competition at all. I also gave it a good water and a bucketful of compost afterwards to give it enough energy to continue its die back. Currently the bed is flat and there was no growth after I cut it back.

Score card:
Green-ness: 5/5 for growing your own food!
Frugal-ness: 5/5 for buying a plant that will feed you for 20+ years!
Time cost: Next to nothing - a very low maintenance plant.
Skill level: Just a once yearly pruning and a two week cutting vigilance using the phrase; "oh my goodness- look how much it grew since yesterday!"
Fun-ness: Awesome fun to munch on the freshest asparagus while still standing in the garden!

2 comments:

Kim said...

Thanks for this post. This is my first year of growing asparagus and I scared to pick them! I know I have to wait a couple of years, but the spears coming up look soooo good.

Practical Frog said...

Hi Kim, I think if you only pick a few spears you will be ok. If you pick too many spears and they cant get enough nourishment into the crown before they die back for the winter, they will just die. - They are really yum straight out of the garden! - K x

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