Growing up, I always heard about Aunt Judy Kostyra's family farm in Michigan -- a property in faraway Kalamazoo, famous for its asparagus.
At that time, I had never seen an asparagus farm, but I could imagine the wide rows -- heavily mulched with straw-studded, well-rotted cow or horse manure -- with thousands of fat asparagus spears poking up through the soil, ready to be harvested, packed, and shipped to greengrocers.
When I finally had my own garden, in Westport, one of the first things I planted was an asparagus patch, right alongside the rhubarb.
I planted the asparagus, which were shipped bare root (called asparagus crowns), in deep trenches. (Trenches should be about 18 inches deep and 12 inches wide, with soil mounded in the bottom about 5 inches.) And I followed the grower's instructions exactly so that my patch would be exemplary and productive. I ordered crowns from Nourse Farms, in western Massachusetts -- varieties with names like Mary Washington (a nonhybrid) -- and Jersey Giant and Jersey Knight from Rutgers University's breeding program. I chose a very sunny spot (asparagus need seven to eight hours of sun a day), in an area where the soil was well drained and rich in compost and humus. (It is very important to plant in soil that has a pH of about 7.)
In just three years, I was able to pick tender green stalks and was utterly delighted that I had enough asparagus to serve our family of three every day for almost a month. I made asparagus soup, a Chinese stir-fry with fermented black beans, and asparagus hollandaise -- my favorite to this day.
What I discovered, growing my own, was that fresh-picked asparagus spears were so much better than anything I had ever had before. So, of course, when I moved to Bedford, I planted several hundred crowns. A well-planted patch can live for more than 20 years, so I am expecting that portion of my garden to be producing asparagus for many, many years.
I have planted three very long rows in the eastern section of my vegetable garden, and they are thriving. For the past five years, eager to try the new hybrids, I have added varieties. Mister Spear, a big grower in California, sent me giant crowns, and within a year they were producing very large, fat asparagus. I have also planted some purple types, which are pretty in the garden and turn green when cooked.
I try to grow all my vegetables in a pesticide-free and organic manner. Once the soil has been tested for pH and amended for nutrients, I do no chemical fertilizing or spraying. Every year, I apply compost and peat moss and well-rotted manure to the beds. Once picking season is over, after four weeks, I allow the "ferns" to grow high and thick -- these beautiful ferns can reach up to 6 feet tall. They are important because they provide rich nutrients to the roots for the next season's growth.
In late autumn, the ferns, once softened and ripened by frost, can be cut off at ground level, leaving a clean bed for the following spring.
I encourage everyone to plant a few crowns from one of the new hybrids and establish an asparagus garden that will provide pleasure for years.
Tie spears together with kitchen twine, and stand them on end for even cooking.
Lay asparagus in a saute pan with an inch or so of water, and boil until tender -- a matter of a few minutes.
Arrange pieces in a single layer on a baking sheet, and cook in a hot oven with a bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper.
Text by Martha Stewart