Getting our hands dirty in the asparagus patch
When the early settlers came ashore to this part of Madison WI they found the indigenous inhabitants mowed the lawn right up to the foundations of the Stately Manor. In the 38 years since claiming this land, the Squire has endeavored to reclaim portions of this 0.38 acres of Orchard Ridge for agriculture and much of the rest to nature.
Early this May the unlettered field hands of Blaska Experimental Work Farm (and Penal Colony) labored to restore its once-bountiful asparagus fields. These were planted as one of the enlightened Squire’s first acts of reclamation. In past years, the harvest of these succulent spears was so bountiful the First Family could not keep up. Scrambled with eggs for breakfast, steamed, buttered and salted for dinner, mixed with gravy on top of mashed potatoes — pure heaven.
Last year’s crop was M.I.A. — scant and impoverished. The Work Farm’s overseer (a cruel but fair man) was called onto the proverbial carpet. He had exercised poor husbandry, allowed the patch to become overrun with invasives, particularly the troublesome nettle, and had not fertilized. The overseer objected that the life span of an asparagus (or, as he pronounces it: “ASPER-grass”) bed ranges from 30 to 40 years.
In any event, it was time to start over. The plots were worked over with our newly acquired Stihl KombiSystem power tool, which allows one power head to accept multiple tools; in this case, a rototiller. (A neat idea but the weight is on your shoulders.) We decided against poisoning the unwanted vegetation. Covered the newly worked soil for about a week with a plastic tarp to discourage re-rooting, then it was time to plant.
The field hands dug trenches eight inches deep and 4 feet apart in the sunniest portion of the Work Farm, singing their folk songs as they worked. (Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale among them.) Into those trenches they sprinkled a goodly amount of composted leaves and some peat moss before setting the asparagus roots spread like octopi about 1 foot apart.
For the first bed, we chose the male-only Jersey hybrids, specifically Jersey Knight, advertised to be the finest spear quality, and the newer Jersey Supreme, said to be well suited to colder climates and producing earlier in the season. The latter were two-year roots obtained from our reliable Jung Garden Center, holding out the possibility we will get some small harvest next spring. The one-year-old Jersey Knight roots were notably smaller and will require patience until the year 2021.
In the second patch we planted the open-pollinated Mary Washington, the variety we planted during the George H.W. Bush presidency. For more variety, we added Purple Passion, which turns green when cooked but is said to have a high sugar content. Dunno if that’s a plus or a minus but we’ll try it. Like Mary W., it is open pollinated, meaning it will not be as productive as the all-male Jersey hybrids. But these were also two-year roots.
Two inches of friable black earth was lightly tamped over the row. From a sprinkling can we poured Jung’s “asparagus jump start” 17-16-28 slow-release fertilizer. As the plants grow we’ll top off with more soil. We intend to mulch the bejeepers out of our newly planted asparagus patch with reasonably priced marsh hay. It’s cheaper than straw and not weedy as the chopped straw available in plastic bags.
We’re using the marsh hay to mulch our two newly planted “Amber Jubilee” ninebark bushes and the cold-hardy (down to minus-30 F) Japanese-Korean maple, all obtained from the Bruce Co. With chartreuse-colored leaves, this maple is part of the “Jack Frost Collection” from a company called Iseli. We were blown away by the fall colors of its “North Wind” stablemate, which emerges a bronze red in the spring.
Hope everyone is having a wonderful Mother’s Day!