For those of you who have never planted asparagus before, don't let this deter you - just be prepared for the amount of work it will take! And for those of you who have - well, you know what I'm talking about when I say that after this weekend I now know for sure that I'm a real gardener! :-)
With innocent stars in my eyes, and visions of fresh asparagus spears dancing in my head, I ordered 10 crowns from a nursery my mom recommended. I read up ahead of time about what kind of soil they like, how deep to plant them, what amendments to add, etc.
We had planned to rent a tiller in April and till up our garden space, plus a bed for the asparagus. Alas, with the copious spring rains, and the complete lack of drainage on our flat-as-a-pancake property, the ground remained squishy mud for the entire month of April. I pined for gardening time, staring out the window at the rain, and hoping our asparagus would not arrive too soon and find a quagmire as its inhospitable new home.
Finally, last Monday, after 5 amazing warm and sunny days without rain, my husband took a day off work and rented a tiller (or, "The Beast" as he not-so-fondly refers to it now). I arrived home from work to find a bumpy, lumpy, clod-filled field of earth and grass sprouts and roots where our new garden will be. But the asparagus bed remained a patch of undisturbed grass and dandelions, green as ever in the drizzly evening (yes, it was raining again - he finished tilling just in time). When he returned from dropping off the tiller, I said, "Hey, hubby - what gives? Where's my asparagus bed??"
Apparently, the tiller was too large and cumbersome to operate in the small area we had planned for it (plus, I think he was tired after tilling the 1,200 square feet of grass and clay in the main garden). No biggie - I thought. I'll just dig the bed by hand - it's only 4' x 8' anyway, and I've dug plenty of beds from scratch before!
I won't bore you with the details of digging a patch of well-established grass and dandelions out of a 4x8' area of solid clay which has never been gardened before (as far as I can tell), but suffice it to say that it took over 2 hours, I finished well after dark, and am still having trouble walking 3 days later from standing up, forking, squatting down and beating lumps of clay-filled grass roots together, standing up, forking...you get the picture. Brazilian Butt Lift can kiss my you-know-what! :-)
If you look closely at the picture to the left, you may notice the giant grass clump almost as big as my head clutched in my left hand.
Step 1: Remove all vegetation and roots from the planting area (this was accomplished in the first 2 hours the previous evening)
Step 2: Loosen the soil to a depth of 8 inches over the entire planting area using a digging fork.
Step 3: Spread 2" of compost over the planting area and mix it into the soil.
Sounds easy enough, considering that I already forked all the grass out, right? Not so fast - remember this is hard-packed clay.... I normally would have combined steps 2 and 3, but figured this area could use some extra forking, so I did it twice - once before the compost, and once after. My husband had just picked up a load of compost the day before, so I filled a wheelbarrow and brought it over. I also added just a bit of peat moss, since the ground is so hard, even though it doesn't need any extra acidity - luckily our soil is a perfect 7.0, which is what asparagus likes.
After this was done, I was actually surprised and impressed by how nice the soil now looked! I would barely recognize it to contain the same clayey clods I was forking up the night before.
Yeah, this didn't happen. This instruction didn't make that much sense to me anyway. It only said to loosen the soil 8" down, but you are supposed to dig 4" below that? Not possible in solid clay! From what I've heard elsewhere, it's okay to plant asparagus a bit more shallowly than that anyway. My trench was about 8" deep, but we have a frame around the bed, so we can add more soil on top later if needed.
The instructions said to fill a wheelbarrow about 2/3 full of excavated soil mixed with compost for each 8 foot row, so I scooped about every other shovel full into the wheelbarrow, and then added some dark black compost from my own composting efforts last year, which I had saved in a bag just for the asparagus bed. Gotta make it your own, you know? :-)
Step 5: Add 3 cups of all-purpose organic vegetable fertilizer, and 1-2 cups of greensand to the wheelbarrow, and mix thoroughly. I used Garden-Tone and Greensand both from Espoma Organics.
Step 7: Make a conical mound about 6" high every 18" along the trench. (Sounds weird, but you'll see why in a minute, especially when you say hello to your first asparagus crown!)
Step 9: (Here comes trouble.) Fill in the trench until each crown is covered with about 2" of soil.
Uh oh.... By my 3rd crown, I realized something was wrong.... The soil not only wasn't 2" over the top of the crown, but the crown was actually level with the surface of the ground, and there was no more dirt to fill in! As you are supposed to add even MORE soil later after the asparagus sprouts up out of the ground, this was obviously not going to work. Guess I should have dug the trench 12" deep after all....
For the second trench, I had learned my lesson, so this one went a lot better. I still followed the instructions in Steps 4 and 5, but when it came to adding the compost mixture to the trench, I just put two shovels full where I wanted each mound. Then I mounded them up, removing a few handfuls of the soil if it seemed too high, and put the crowns in. I used the rest of what was in the wheelbarrow to fill in around and over the crowns.
I only had to add a bit of the leftover dirt that was scooped out of the trench to cover them all by about 2", so I ended up with a nice ridge of soil down the center of the bed to cover them with again when they start coming up. We'll still probably have to add some more because of the other row, but that's fine - I wanted the bed to be raised up a bit anyway, so this will accomplish that!
All in all, it was by far the most difficult garden task I've ever done. It took a total of about 5 hours of intense physical labor, which left my entire body aching (literally, from the bottoms of my feet (from digging the fork into the clay), to the tips of my fingers (from wrenching clods of grass from the ground and breaking up lumps of clay)). But I'm sure the asparagus will taste all that much sweeter for it!
So the next time you eat asparagus, remember all the work that went into it. And if you're up for planting your own, more power to you - I'm sure it will be worth it when you pick your own fresh asparagus straight from the garden. I sure hope so anyway! :-)