It keeps on giving – if you take care of it

I grew up in cities but caught the back-to-the-land bug in the late ‘60s. I went to the University of Guelph and received a diploma in agriculture with a horticulture specialty in 1972. I bought a farm at Centreville in Eastern Ontario in 1978 and started growing apples, berries and vegetables, including asparagus. In the mid ‘80s I added grain production and also milked a small herd of Jersey cows for a few years. I raised meat chickens, pigs and beef cattle. At its peak, the raspberries, strawberries, and market gardens comprised about 8 acres, and the grains about 250 acres. In recent years I have cut back to about 100 acres of crops, including a half acre of asparagus. I still raise a couple of flocks of meat chickens a year and keep a few laying hens.

When I started farming, I was interested in organic production, but there wasn’t much information or advice available. I took the “low input” approach, trying to live with pests and resorting to the lowest rates of the least toxic chemicals as a last resort. This turned out to be a worst-of-both-worlds situation. I got poor pest control (especially on the apple trees), but I couldn’t charge any more for the produce. With more experience behind me, more organic information available, and more organic farmers setting an example, I decided to go organic. All crops have been certified organic since 1999.

Asparagus is a perennial that can produce at a commercial level for 15 or 20 years with proper care. Given that long duration, weeds are a concern. Eliminating perennials such as Canada thistle and grasses before establishment is critical. Asparagus will not do well in poorly drained soil, or in heavy clay soils, but sandy loam is ideal.

Setting crowns in trenches

Planting is usually done in spring as soon as the ground is dry enough. I am on my third planting since 1978. The current patch was planted in 2012/13. I buy year-old crowns. I planted Jersey Giant in 2012 and Guelph Millennium in 2013. The latter is more vigorous and productive, and the quality is as good as Jersey Giant. There are newer varieties from the University of Guelph now that sound promising.

I use a single furrow plough to make trenches about a foot deep (some shovelling is needed after ploughing to clean out loose soil). About 3 inches of composted manure is placed in the trench, and the crowns are set about a foot apart. Rows are 4 to 5 feet apart. Enough soil is raked in to cover the crowns. Subsequent hoeing and cultivating will move more soil into the trench as the asparagus spears grow until the trench is filled.

Compost in trenches

It takes time for the crowns to develop to a size that can sustain harvesting. No spears are harvested in the planting year and few, if any, in the year after planting. A limited harvest can be taken in the spring of the third year and increasing amounts in the following years. Assuming the patch is healthy and well cared for, a full 6-to-8 week harvest may occur by the fifth year. With experience, you will be able to judge when it is time to stop harvesting and let the plants grow and replenish the crown.

Asparagus is a heavy feeder, particularly of nitrogen. Conventional recommendations are to apply 200 pounds of N each year. I apply about a ton and a half of composted chicken manure after harvest to the half acre patch to approximate that nitrogen recommendation.

Raking soil over crowns

Weed control is the biggest time and effort challenge. I use mechanical control, both hoeing and tillage, as well as mulch and hens (yes, hens). The first tillage operation is to disc the patch as early in the spring as the soil will permit. Since the crowns are well below the soil surface, a light disc run shallowly won’t damage them. I use a 6-foot three-point-hitch disc set to penetrate about three inches, and go over the patch a couple of times. This will get rid of any perennial weeds that may have started in the previous fall (usually dandelions). I may do an interrow cultivation with a tiller or tractor mounted cultivator during harvest.

2013 new planting:2012 plants on right

Annual weeds that germinate within the row during harvest aren’t a big problem, although they may grow to a height that can obscure the spears a bit by the last week of harvest. The day following the last cutting, the composted manure is spread and diced in. This eliminates the weeds that grew during harvest. Then the rows are mulched with straw or shavings. I get shavings from a woodworking shop and have my own wheat straw. Tilling or cultivating controls weeds in the aisles between the rows.

Once the asparagus stalks, that have been left to grow after harvest, are tall and no longer brittle, I fence the patch with 30-inch-high electric poultry netting and introduce a couple of dozen laying hens. The netting confines the hens to the row and excludes predators. There is a chicken coop at the corner of the patch. They range throughout the rows eating weeds and scratching the ground, which eliminates many weeds as they germinate. Yes, they disturb the mulch a lot, but that doesn’t matter at that point because they are taking over from the mulch as weed controllers.

The hens aren’t perfect – they may not get to the farthest corner of the patch for a couple of weeks after being introduced (why walk that far when there are weeds and bugs near the coop?), so some hoeing in the remoter areas may still be needed. The hen weeders are particularly useful as the asparagus ferns get very tall and dense (6 feet or more) and some start to fall over into the aisles. This makes tilling virtually impossible but provides no barrier to the hens which forage in the fern jungle unimpeded.

Asparagus beetles can cause a lot of damage. They start laying eggs on the harvestable spears as the warmer weather comes in mid-May, but the eggs can be wiped/washed off. It is the beetles feeding on the young emerging fern growth in newer plantings that can set things back quite a bit if unchecked. The beetles are sluggish in cool temperatures, so if you go out at dawn on cool spring mornings, it is easy to knock them into a pail of water, or just pick and crush them. But the hens eat them and eliminate them almost totally, so they are no longer a problem for me.

Harvesting starts as soon as the spears have grown to about 8” tall. It’s best to do this daily, and early in the day so the spears are cool and it will need less energy to chill them in the refrigerator. We cut them at ground level, trim them to a 90º angle, and pack them in plastic bags. We try to market them as quickly as possible, but they will store for a few days in the fridge with minimal quality loss. Cutting asparagus is very labour intensive. In large commercial plantings, cutters lie on tractor mounted platforms, but we just do stoop labour. It can be hard on the back and knees. I have a very fit teenage neighbour who can cut the half acre at peak production in less than 2 hours (at peak, that can be nearly 100 lbs).

I sell the asparagus at the farm in 2- and 5-pound bags in a self-serve set-up. I also wholesale it to a couple of natural food stores in Kingston, and to a couple of restaurants. Balancing supply and demand can be tricky when the weather is variable. Last year an early warm spell brought the asparagus on early, then it turned cold and emerging spears were frozen off several times. A couple of years ago, ample rain and an intense hot spell brought harvest on so fast that we couldn’t sell it all, then the exhausted crowns crashed and the diminished production couldn’t keep up with demand.

Unless one of my sons decides to come home and farm, I won’t be planting another field of asparagus. By the time the current patch is running out of steam I’ll be over 80 and I’ll be out of steam too.

John Wise

Wiseacres Organic Farm 613-378-2583

Growing Certified Organic Asparagus