Three years ago, I invested valuable space in the possibility of asparagus. Three years ago, I hadn’t grown much food and found fleeting opportunities for harvest tricky and frustrating. I was thinking of my veggie garden the same way I thought of my flower gardens, as a long-term commitment. The idea of perennial food crops sounded great, especially for expensive food. I bought some asparagus crowns, planted them, and then researched how to grow asparagus.
Imagine my surprise when I read do not, DO NOT harvest for three to five years. Yes, I wanted long-term commitment, but really? I also read it’s very detrimental to move the plants, so my poor choice of placement became irreversible. I planted them in a creative little arc, or half-moon shape. The pattern is completely invisible when the fronds start to mature, and the space inside the arc behind the plants is wasted, although maybe I can cram some lettuce in if the rabbits don’t find it. Those fronds make a lot of shade. The lettuces would like that.
For two years I have watched without interfering as little asparagus spears shot up through the dirt and beckoned to be munched. Following the Prime Directive, I refrained from all contact with the asparagus. I watched from a safe distance. I kept my greedy hands to myself. As delicious spears grew six feet tall and leafed out like feathery Christmas trees, I did no more than stick dogwood branches here and there to keep them from collapsing under their own weight.
Last year, the forest of fronds became an insect wildlife habitat. Or a ladybug brothel, depending on how you look at it. I had learned about the wild sex lives of ladybugs when my milkweed got aphids, so I was not surprised to see the little black alligator things (larvae) and the empty little pod things (what they hatch from) among the vigorously fornicating ladybugs. I found exactly one asparagus beetle, instantly standing out like a missionary at Mardi Gras with his green and black instead of red and black spots. I couldn’t get any good pictures of the ladybugs, but I found several of these guys in the fronds:
Eek! Apparently this is just a Common Garden Spider, but he looks like a dangerous character to me.
Back to asparagus. Year three. Spring came early, and now frost is returning. Time to harvest!
My first lesson learned was to harvest at 5 to 7 inches tall, or the stems lose their tenderness and become woody. If you wait for more spears, the ones which have sprouted double in size but lose their flavor.
Lesson two: this isn’t the grocery store, so the spears will come up as they please, and you will have to eat asparagus when it is ready to be eaten, not when you want it. But really, when don’t you want asparagus? Even if you only have a handful of spears to add to stir fry or salad, it is so elegant, who in their right mind would complain?
Lesson three: STOP! Those fat tasty spears need to grow up to become a crazy forest or you will never have asparagus again. But while you still have enough to serve as a side dish, try cooking asparagus in brown butter sauce and serve it over salmon filets. It’s easy.
Get salmon with skin, leave the skin on, and cook it at 425 in a perfectly sealed dish in the oven for 15 minutes. No, you don’t need to season it with anything; the skin takes care of that. On the stove, cook two tablespoons of butter (real actual butter) over medium until it starts browning and smelling nutty. You think you’re burning the butter, but you’re not; you’re just making it more delicious. Let it slowly turn brown. Throw in asparagus for about 1 minute. Turn off the heat. Add capers, a squeeze of lemon, pepper if you like, and flop the mixture on top of the salmon filets on plates. My husband thought this dish had five gallons of butter. Caramelizing intensifies the flavor of the butter, and the nutty effect reiterates the flavor of raw fresh asparagus.
Waiting three years and giving all that garden space to a few plants that come into fruition briefly once a year – was it worth it? Absolutely Yes. Without my investment in asparagus, I would never have tasted it raw and fresh. Fresh asparagus doesn’t need to be cooked. It’s soft in texture after the initial crunch, crisp and green when you chew, leaves a complicated nutty aftertaste when you finish. These layers of flavor are absent from grocery store vegetables. So much modern food is flavorless; especially fast food and the home equivalent, freezer food. Asparagus is an investment, and totally worth the wait.