Okay, maybe it’s not going to be that “great.” And maybe it’s not soooo experimental. I mean, other people have grown asparagus from seed. But the “normal” way to start an asparagus bed is to buy crowns: the roots of one- or two-year-old plants. Starting a bed with nothing more than a packet of seeds feels like thumbing my nose at fifty years of garden center progress. Surely starting a delicious perennial crop like asparagus–one that promises to reward our family with armloads of new shoots spring after early spring–can’t be as easy as planting a few seeds the size of peppercorns! There must be a catch. Something is bound to go wrong. That is why I hereby dub this undertaking the “Great Asparagus Experiment.”
So why try this alternative method, when obviously everyone else plants asparagus crowns? Because it’s cheaper, of course. The cheapest place I’ve found to buy asparagus crowns is Gurney’s, and they charge $9.99 for 10 one-year-old medium-grade crowns of their cheapest variety. The ounce of seeds I bought looks like it contains about 300. And it cost $4.95 from neseed. Which means that if I planted every one of them this year, even accounting for the half that would turn out to be female and need to be removed from the bed, by next spring I would have multiplied the value of my investment by 30. That’s a 3000% return. Not bad. Of course, I’m not going to plant all the seeds. I’m only going to plant 30. But that’s still a 300% return on investment. And I’ll also have the joy of giving away surplus asparagus seed to anyone who wants it! (Katy, that means you!)
I did my (admittedly brief) research on asparagus varieties last weekend and decided I was going to go with the heirloom variety Mary Washington. I’m a sucker for heirlooms (especially when they’re named for mothers of presidents). Something about their having stood the test of time. And the fact that they obviously knew how to grow in the days before synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Plus they’re open-pollinated, which means that if I did one day decide to allow some female plants in my asparagus bed, they would produce viable seed, and I could start the whole process over again!
Another “experimental” aspect of my asparagus growing is the fact that I’m starting the seeds indoors. I’ve read that a lot of people direct seed asparagus after the last spring frost. This seems like the most labor-saving option and would be perfect for people who don’t have the time (or interest) to watch over trays of seedlings. However, I’ve also read that starting the seeds indoors a couple of months before the last frost will greatly hasten the day when you can cut your first harvest. So I’m trying it.
The first step, accomplished yesterday, was embarrassingly easy. I dampened a couple of paper towels (placed one on top of the other), spread my thirty seeds out on half the surface, folded over the other half, and sealed it all in a (recycled!) Ziploc bag. Now the seeds are sitting in a warm place, where they should germinate over the next two weeks or so.
By the way, here was my method for determining the number of seeds I wanted to start: The finished bed is going to be 4 feet wide. I’m going to plant one row of plants down the middle, 6″ apart. Once I thin out the females at season’s end, when the red seed balls appear, that should leave on average one plant every 12″, which I’ve read is a good distance for mature plants. So I just took the length of the bed I wanted–12 feet–multiplied it by 2, and then added a few extra seeds in case some don’t germinate.
Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll scrounge up a couple dozen 3-1/2″ pots, and, as long as disaster doesn’t strike, by the end of the month, the sprouts should be ready for potting up. Keep your fingers crossed for the Great Asparagus Experiment!