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A Versatile Vegetable
HOW would you like to plant a vegetable that would supply you and your family with some food for up to 20 years? What if it did this without any replanting or much cultivation? Would it not also be appealing if the plant had the habit of yielding when other vegetables are in short supply? Well, that versatile vegetable is asparagus! And for that lengthy supply, a family of five would need only about 12 crowns of it.
Do you wonder about nutritional value? Well, asparagus contains varying amounts of calcium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium and iron, as well as vitamins A, B1, B2, C and niacin all necessary for a healthful diet. That in itself is good reason to include asparagus in the home garden bed!
This tasty relative of the regal lily has been lending interest to menus ever since it was cultivated by the ancient Egyptians. By 200 B.C.E. information on its cultivation was being recorded by the Romans.
While many consider asparagus a common vegetable, others classify it as a delicious luxury. Although usually retailed in canned form, the fresh spears also are of delectable flavor. Both white and green asparagus is cultivated, green possibly being best for the home gardener because it combines higher food value with better flavor.
In growing white asparagus, the crowns are planted in a trench and mounds are built up above them to blanch the spears before they emerge from the soil. For green asparagus, no earthing up is done. The spears are cut when they are seven to nine inches (18 to 23 centimeters) above the ground.
Asparagus can be grown from seeds, or crowns can be purchased from a nursery. It is noteworthy that male plants yield a much higher crop than do female plants. The difference between the two can be seen during the second season, when female plants produce seed. Asparagus is not restricted to one type of soil. However, the soil must be well drained (especially if it is heavy) and well watered if sandy.
Preparation should include
the digging in of animal manure or compost. The crowns should be set 30 inches (76 centimeters) apart on a small heap of soil in a trench eight inches (20 centimeters) deep and 12 inches (30 centimeters) wide. (A complete fertilizer should have been applied previously to the bed.) The crowns should then be covered with two inches (5 centimeters) of soil, and the bed should be kept well cultivated until the appearance of the first shoots. As the plants develop, the trench should be gradually filled up with soil. In the case of white asparagus, the mounds should be raised nine to 12 inches (23 to 30 centimeters).
When well fertilized, the plants produce a fernlike growth above the ground and sturdy, vigorous crowns beneath the surface. Very important factors are the elimination of perennial weeds from the bed during preparation, as well as good weed control throughout the growing season. However, the use of herbicides may lead to damage, if they are used more than once each season.
Harvesting the Crop
Having established your asparagus bed, patience is essential. The spears should not be harvested during the first season. Instead, allow the crowns to build up. They should be harvested only lightly for no more than two weeks during the second season. But when the bed has been established for three years, you can go right ahead and enjoy the fruits of your labors.
Check the bed every day during the harvest season. Growth then is rapid and, if the spears are left too long, they will become tough at the butt. White asparagus is cut by inserting a knife into the mound eight or nine inches (20 or 23 centimeters) below the tip of the spear as soon as it breaks through the ground. Green asparagus is cut just below the surface when the tip is seven to nine inches (18 to 23 centimeters) above the ground and before the scales on the tip begin to open.
In a mature bed, the harvesting period lasts for three months, and at the end of that time a change will be seen in the growth of the spears. At this stage they will appear to be stunted, and this is the signal to stop harvesting the crop and allow the bed to complete the growing cycle. The resultant fernlike growth, which has no nutritional value, should be cut in the late autumn or early winter, just prior to the full ripening of the seed. This can then be burned or composted. The period of top growth allows time for the root system to build up strength for the growth of the next season.
Preparation for the Table
What shall we eat? This versatile vegetable may be just the thing needed to answer that familiar question. Whether the occasion calls for a quick snack or a bowl of hot soup, asparagus may suit your taste. Simply steam some of it slowly in a small amount of salted water to which a little vinegar has been added. This produces a delicious asparagus to be eaten alone, served either on hot, buttered toast, or with a salad. For the vegetable to be more pleasing to the eye when served, the tips of the spears should not be broken. Careful cooking will prevent this. You may prefer to cook the spears in a vessel that allows them to stand upright, with the tips pointing upward, since the butts require more cooking.
Is it a cold day? If so, perhaps a bowl of hot soup will be more appetizing than a cold meal. To enhance your menu, a very nourishing soup can be prepared by using about 8 ounces (227 grams) of asparagus boiled in 1-1/2 pints (.71 liter) of water with finely chopped onion, celery and turnip, if desired. When the vegetables are tender (in about 30 minutes), they should be pressed through a sieve or liquefied in a blender. Then they should be thickened with 1-1/2 ounces (43 grams) of flour and 2 ounces (58 grams) of butter, blended with 1 pint (.47 liter) of milk and boiled for five minutes. Salt and pepper should be added according to taste. Then serve the soup hot, garnished with finely chopped parsley.
So, you might consider asparagus the next time you hear the question, What shall we eat? Maybe this versatile vegetable will then become a nourishing and palate-pleasing addition to your menu.
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By Corwin Brown
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