asparagus seedlings


The Evidence

I’d like to make a case for growing asparagus, even if you’re not a vegetable gardener. In fact, vegetable gardeners need not relegate asparagus to the vegetable patch. The plants hold little interest to deer, rabbits and other furry invaders that must be fenced out of vegetable gardens.

The ferny stems can provide a wispy lime-green backdrop to mounded flowers like lavatera and gaillardia, or an airy foreground to the broad, glossy leaves of holly bushes. My present asparagus provides a backdrop for three clematis plants trained skyward on wire trellises.Asparagus and clematis

Asparagus is especially easy to grow, in part because it is a perennial. My patch is about 25 years old. Read more


Many Reasons to Grow Asparagus

In my book Weedless Gardening, I begin the section about asparagus with the statement “Forget about the usual directives to excavate deep trenches when planting one- or two-year-old crowns of asparagus.” More about planting in a bit; let me first lay out my case about why YOU should grow asparagus.

With most vegetables, by the time you taste them fresh-picked somewhere, it’s too late in the season to plant them in your garden. Not so with asparagus. Asparagus spearBorrow a taste from a neighbor’s asparagus bed, or from a wild clump along a fencerow, and you’re likely to want some growing outside your own back door. Minutes-old asparagus has a very different flavor and texture (both much better) than any asparagus that reaches the markets. The time to plant is now.

A big plus for asparagus is that it’s a perennial plant, so once a bed is planted, more time is spent picking than any other activity. An established planting can reward the gardener with tender green spears for a half a century or more. My asparagus bed is thirty-six years old and about twenty-five feet long; on every warm day, the bed offers enough stalks for a meal for two.

Deer and rabbits don’t have a taste for asparagus so no need to plant it within the vegetable garden or any protected area. (My dogs have eclectic palates, and they joined in on the harvest until I made clear that asparagus was not dog food.)Asparagus growing through mulch Planting asparagus beyond the confines of the vegetable garden works out well because the lacy, green foliage stands as a backdrop for perennial flowers. Or, it can soften the line of a wall or fence.Asparagus in August

Traditional Planting Method is Unduly Hard

Now, back to what I wrote about planting asparagus in Weedless Gardening, (available, by the way, at the usual sources as well as, signed, from my website, here).

The traditional method for planting an asparagus bed entails digging a trench a foot or more deep, setting the roots — one-year-old roots establish best — in the bottom with a covering of a shovelful of soil, then filling in the trench gradually as the stalks grew.

Whew! I planted my own asparagus bed just deep enough to cover the upward pointing buds from which the roots radiate, and the plants do just fine.

The main reasons for the traditional deep planting were to protect the crowns from overzealous hoes or other tillage implements, and from knives during harvest. But I don’t till my asparagus bed. I just pile on some mulch every year. And I harvest by snapping the stalks off with my fingers, rather than cutting into the soil with a knife.Asparagus harvest

Gardeners with patience sow seeds, which need a year more in the ground than roots before harvest can begin. Seed sowing is straightforward, except that germination is slow. Soak the seeds in water for a few hours before sowing to shorten germination time.asparagus seedlings

Whether starting with seeds or plants, the bed needs to be planted in full sun, with eighteen inches between plants in the row, and four feet between rows.

Tune into Asparagus’s Life Cycle

Although asparagus roots live on year after year, the feathery tops turn brown and die back to the ground every fall. Asparagus, yellowing foliageThen, when the spring sun warms the soil, energy stored in the roots fuels growth of the spears. As the spears grow higher and higher, feathery green branches unfold. Photosynthesis within these green branches pumps energy to the root system, energy that keeps the roots alive through the winter and fuels early growth of spears the following spring, thus completing the plant’s annual cycle. (The true leaves of asparagus, which are the small scales on the stems, are much reduced in size and function; the green stems take on most of the job of photosynthesis for this plant.) 

Harvesting asparagus steals some of the energy that had been stored in the roots. The plant must build adequate reserves before tender stalks can be spared for our plates, and then each season left enough time to grow freely to replenish its energy reserves.

The first season of planting, no asparagus is harvested; if good growth was made the first season, some can be harvested the second season. The plants are ready for a full harvest by the third season. 

Full harvest means cutting all stalks from the time they first emerge until about the end of June. asparagusRemember, the plants do need some time to nourish their roots in preparation for winter. Following the last harvest, all new green stems are left untouched until their summer job is over, as they turn brown in the fall.

Asparagus grew wild along the shores of the Mediterranean before plants were transplanted to Greek and Roman gardens. The steaming dish of asparagus on my table today is virtually identical to the asparagus enjoyed by the ancients over 2000 years ago. Even our word for the vegetable is nearly identical to, and derived from, the Greek word asparagos. 

Asparagus came to America with the early colonists and has been cultivated extensively here since then. The red berries borne on female plants attract birds that spread the seed, so asparagus now pops up as an “escape” from cultivation along fencerows and roadsides.



A Vine or a Bush?

Here’s a blast from the past, from my November 20, 2009 blog post, with current commentaries  on how things have changed — and not changed — over the past 11 years.

Dateline: New Paltz, NY, November 20, 2009, 5:30 am. New models of plants, like cars, are deemed necessary to keep consumers interested and spending money. My cars (actually trucks . . . you know, manure and all that) stay with me for as long as they keep rolling along, so it was with equal skepticism I looked upon a new “model” of mandevilla, called Crimson, that arrived at my doorstep early last summer.

I was first attracted and introduced to mandevilla about 20 years ago. The glossy leaves and the bright red, funnel shaped flowers, were part of the attraction. The Crimson Mandevillavining habit was also a big part of the draw, making the plant a stand-in for morning glory, but with prettier leaves and brighter flowers. Mandevilla is a perennial, tropical vine, so must winter indoors rather than be seeded outdoors each spring like morning glory. My vine’s leaves yellowed so much in winter that I tired of looking at it; one winter day I walked it over to the compost pile.

The variety Crimson is a new kind of mandevilla whose main selling point is its bushy growth habit. So yes, it is different and new, but wasn’t that vining habit one of the things I always liked about mandevilla?

Still, I have grown very fond of Crimson. It flowered continuously all summer and, since coming indoors in September, continues to do so, with new buds on the way (at every third leaf bud, according to the “manufacturer.”) I’m going to think of Crimson mandevilla as a very pretty, long blooming, bushy plant. Yes, it’s a worthy new model.

Dateline: New Paltz, NY, November 19, 2020: Well, Crimson evidently was not that worthy; it’s no longer with me. As I remember, that sickly look that eventually came on in winter didn’t justify its tenancy here.

With that said, someday I may still grow mandevilla again. But not Crimson or any other bushy variety. As I wrote 11 years ago, that vining habit was one of its main attractions. If I do grow it again, I’ll put it in the basement or somewhere where I’ll hardly see it, for it to sit out winter.

Are They Really Sickly?

(2009) Sickly-looking leaves of houseplants – such as my mandevilla of yore – can be traced to a number of causes. Already I’m seeing this yellow transformation creeping up on my gardenia, which just finished one of its many fragrant shows.
Yellowing leaves of gardenia
Both mandevilla and gardenia need soils that are quite acidic (pH 4-5.5) in order to thrive. Not enough acidity makes it hard for the plant to imbibe iron, resulting in iron deficiency and yellow leaves.

But wait! It’s not time yet for the “iron pills.” Looking more closely at my gardenia, I see that it is the OLDEST leaves that are yellowing. Hunger for iron causes the YOUNGEST leaves to yellow (and for their veins to remain green). Yellowing of older leaves most commonly means that the plant isn’t getting enough nitrogen. The nitrogen is being robbed from older leaves (which turn yellow because nitrogen is an important component of green chlorophyll) to feed the younger leaves.

The prescription? Add some soluble nitrogen fertilizer and pay more attention to watering. Too much water drives air out of the soil, and roots gasping for air have trouble doing their work to take up sufficient nutrients.

(2020) I mostly agree with my past diagnosis of and cure for yellowing leaves. But two other considerations are worthy of attention. 

First, temperatures in my home are on the cool side and roots are less functional as temperatures cool, especially the roots of warm climate plants. So roots might not be able to make efficient use of nitrogen even if it’s added to the soil.

And second, even evergreen plants go through periods of shedding their oldest leaves. Before these leaves drop, they lose their chlorophyll and turn yellow.

So under natural and under less than perfect conditions, mandevilla and gardenia are unavoidably going to look sickly in late fall and early winter.

Oh, the gardenia is also no longer a resident here. Too prone to scale insects.

Asparagus’ Leaves, Their Work Finished

(2009) Yellowing leaves are not always a bad thing. (Think of birch leaves a few weeks ago, or aspen leaves.) I’m happy that my asparagus’ leaves have yellowed. The plants have been growing vigorously all season, feeding their roots to fuel next year’s growth of the delicious young spears that I’ll be snapping off at ground level from late April to early July.

With this year’s work finished, the shoots and leaves, left to grow unfettered since early July, are yellowing and dying back. My short-bladed brush scythe was the perfect tool to make quick work of the plants, a fluffy addition to the compost pile.

With the asparagus shoots and leaves cleared away, I could get into that bed and weed it. The bed was pretty much weed-free until July, but then wet summer weather kept Weeding asparagus in past yearsweeds germinating and growing, and hard to reach among the 6-foot-high forest of feathery stalks. The bed is now weeded and soon to be fertilized (2#/100 square feet of soybean meal) and mulched (wood chips 2 inches deep).

(2020) Wow! Right on schedule, on the same date as 11 years ago, asparagus leaves have yellowed. They’ve pumped nutrients and fuel down to their roots to provide for next spring’s growth, and are no longer functional and could harbor pests. So, like 11 years ago, I’m going to cut them down and add them to the compost pile.
Asparagus cut with scythe
This year I did treat the ground differently from the past 11+ years. Right after this year’s harvest, at the end of June, when the whole bed was cut to the ground, I did a little weeding. And then, instead of soybean meal as a fertilizer, I spread an inch of compost. Compost adds organic matter to the soil, and supplies a wider slew of nutrients and is more sustainable than soybean meal, among other benefits. The compost would also smother some weeds that would try to emerge.

Then, just to further smother weeds, I topped the compost with a one inch layer of wood chips.

I’m proud to report that the asparagus bed has never been so weed-free. No doubt, the very dry summer weather also played a part in keeping weeds at bay. 
Asparagus, growing thru compost + chips
At any rate, I’m getting out the scythe now to cut down the stalks. And I look forward to a good crop of asparagus beginning at the end of April. I highly recommend growing asparagus: it’s perennial and is one of those vegetable whose flavor is markedly different, and much, much better, when eaten fresh-picked.
Asparagus spear


All Good

I’ve never met a blueberry I didn’t like. Then again, I have yet to taste a rabbiteye blueberry (Vaccinium asheii), native to southeastern U.S. and highly acclaimed there. I also have yet to taste Cascades blueberry (V. deliciosum), native to the Pacific northwest. With “deliciosum” as its species name, how could it not taste great? And those are just two of the many species of blueberry that I’ve never tasted that are found throughout the world.

BLUEBERRY FRUITING BRANCHThe blueberries with which I am most familiar are those that I grow, which are highbush blueberry and lowbush blueberry. I grow blueberries because they are beautiful plants, because they are relatively pest free, because they are delicious, and because they fruit reliably for me year after year. 

I have to admit that highbush blueberries, at least to me, all taste pretty much the same. They have nowhere the broad flavor spectrum of apples. Tasting the same is fine with me; as I wrote, they are delicious. Depending on the variety, the berries do vary in ripening season, size, and other less obvious characteristics. One very important influence on flavor is how they are picked. Blueberries turn blue a few days before they are at their peak flavor, which is okay if you’re marketing them and just want them blue. But the best tasting tasting, dead-ripe ones are those that drop into your hand as you tickle a bunch of berries, which makes a good case for growing them near your back door.

Lowbush blueberries also taste pretty much the same from plant to plant, but their flavor is decidedly different from that of highbush blueberries, a more metallic sweetness. Few varieties of lowbush blueberry exist, so most plants are just random seedlings anyway. Not to disparage that, though; they’re also all delicious — if picked at the right moment.
Lowbush blueberry blooming

A Different Blueberry

My idea that all highbush blueberries taste pretty much the same was recently challenged. New highbush varieties have been bred or selected since this native fruit went, over the past 100 years, from being harvested from mostly from the wild to being mostly cultivated. Over the years I’ve been very pleased with the nine varieties I had been growing, spreading out the harvest season from late June until early September.

Then the new variety, Nocturne, bred by Dr. Mark Ehlenfeldt of the USDA, caught my eye. Besides being billed as having unique flavor, Nocturne was also said to be notable for its jet-black fruits which, before they turn jet black, are vivid red-orange in color. What attracted me wasn’t the fruit’s unique colors, but its allegedly unique flavor atypical, so the description read, of either rabbiteye [which is in Nocturne’s lineage] or highbush.”
Nocturne blueberry
So I called Mark to learn more about the variety. One of the original breeding goals back 25 years ago, when Nocturne’s carefully selected parents were mated, was to get a rabbiteye variety that, blooming later than most, would be less susceptible to spring frosts. Chemically, two significant differences between rabbiteye and highbush blueberries are their organic acids. Rabbiteyes have mostly malic and succinic acids, yielding a flatter taste profile than highbush fruits, whose citric acid makes for a brighter, sharper flavor. Other species were also thrown into the mix, including Constable’s blueberry (V. constablaei), a native of higher elevations in southeastern U.S., and contributing late blooming and excellent flavor.

Long story short: Nocturne is significant for being a variety with significant rabbiteye parentage that is winter hardy to well below zero degrees Fahrenheit and late blooming. It has excellent flavor, juicy sweet, and sprightly, and quite different from my other highbush varieties. Nocturne tastes even juicier than it is. Which do I like better? Neither, I like them all. Nocturne, now in its third year here on the farmden, now has a permanent place in my Blueberry Temple.

Blueberry Temple

Blueberry Temple

Learn the Ins and Outs of Growing Blueberries

If you have the space, grow blueberries. To that end, I will be holding a zoom workshop/webinar on growing blueberries on August 12, 2020 from 7-8:30 pm EST. I’ll cover everything from planting right through harvest and preservation. If you’re new to growing blueberries, you’ll learn how to grow this fruit successfully. If you already grow blueberries, you’ll be able to grow them better. If you’re an expert on growing blueberries, you don’t need this workshop/webinar. Registration ($35) is a must as space is limited; registration link is For more information, go to

Asparagus Redux

On a totally different topic, I’d like to followup on my end-of-harvest-season treatment of asparagus. Weeds have always been somewhat problematic in my asparagus bed. Harvest ceases at the end of June so plants can grow freely and feed energy to the roots which will fuel the following year’s spears in spring. Weeds quickly move into this hard-to-weed area.

As I wrote on this blog a few weeks ago, this past June, at the end of asparagus harvest season, I mowed everything, weeds as well as emerging asparagus spears, to the ground with my scythe. I then blanketed the ground with a thick mulch. I first laid down an inch depth of compost, which will feed the soil as well as smother roots, and then topped that with another inch or two of wood chips.

There was the danger of smothering the emergence of new asparagus shoots, but plenty have pushed up through the mulch.

As far as weeds, there are very few. Most of them appear at the grassy edge of the bed.

Mulched asparagus


Berry Enticing

Berries are making it harder to get things done around here. Not because they are so much trouble to grow, but because I’ve planted them here, there, and everywhere. Wherever I walk I seem to come upon a berry bush. Who can resist stopping to graze? This year is a particular bountiful year for berries.

I can’t even walk to my mailbox without being confronted. First, there are lowbush blueberries hanging ripe for the picking over the stone wall bordering the path from the front door. Lowbush blueberries along pathThe wall supports the bed of them planted along with lingonberries, mountain laurels, and rhododendrons. These plants are grouped together because they are in the Heath Family, Ericaceae, all of which demand similar and rather unique soil conditions. That is, high acidity (pH 4 to 5.5), consistent moisture, good aeration, low fertility, and an abundance of soil organic matter. The small blueberries send me back to many summers ago in Maine when a very young me hiked in the White Mountains and picked these berries from plants growing amongst sun-drenched boulders. Care needed: mulching in autumn, and cutting a portion of the planting to the ground with a hedge trimmer every second or third winter.

A few feet further the path ends and I come to the driveway, and here’s a 50 foot long hedge of Nanking cherries (berry size, but a drupe fruit, not a berry), whose season is almost over. For the past few weeks the stems were so solidly clothed in cherries that you could hardly see the branches. The cherries have a very refreshing flavor on the spectrum between that of sweet and tart cherries. Care needed: winter pruning — very nonexacting — to keep the bushes from growing too large.
Nanking cherry fruits
Perhaps later, once back in the house, I’ve got to walk out the back door to the compost pile. Hmmm. Gooseberry plants are enticing me with their stems that are arching to the ground under their weight of berries. Can’t pick a little from just one plant. I’ve got to eat a few of each of the over dozen varieties. My favorites? Hinnonmaki Yellow, Poorman, Black Satin, Red Jacket, and Captivator. 

Poorman gooseberry

Poorman gooseberry

It’s a funny thing about gooseberries. If I pick a bowl of the berries and then bring them indoors to eat, they don’t taste as good as the one’s eaten bushside. It’s not just me; Edward Bunyard, in his 1929 book The Anatomy Of Dessert, wrote that the “Gooseberry is of course the fruit par excellence for ambulant consumption.”

Care needed: winter pruning to get rid of the very oldest stems and make way for younger ones; and to reduce the number of newest stems if they are overly abundant.

Okay, I finally made it to the compost pile. Now to check what’s going on in the greenhouse. Uh oh, I have to walk past black currants, one of my favorite fruits and now at their peak flavor. Their flavor is intense, intensely delicious to me. I grow mostly the variety Belaruskaja, which has just the right amount of sweetness to balance its almost resin-y flavor. Care needed: annual winter lopping to the ground of all two-year-old and some one-year-old stems.
Belaruskaja black currants
And right next to the black currants are black raspberries, also now at their peak flavor. The heavy crop of berries are arching some of the longest stems within reach of our ducks. I can share a few berries with them. Black raspberries grow wild all over the place in much of this part of the country. Wild ones are good. I prefer the named variety, Niwot, that I planted because it is one of two varieties that can bear two crops each season. For fruit size, flavor, and abundance, it’s worth growing even for just its summer crop. Care needed: summer pinching of tips of new stems to induce branching; winter pruning to cut away all two-year-old stems and thin out one-year-old stems, and to shorten branches to 18 inches; and tying stems to posts to hold them up.
Black raspberry fruit
Finally, I make it to the greenhouse. Leaving it, I’m confronted with two mulberry trees, the variety Illinois Everbearing and the variety Oscar (what a funny name for a fruit tree). No danger of the mulberries delaying my progress because I know that the birds are taking all of them. Illinois Everbearing, true to its name, will continue to bear into August. Perhaps by then the birds will tire of them or move on to other fruits, leaving some for me.

One more enticement, one of the best, before going back indoors — Fallgold raspberry. Fallgold raspberryThis variety, carrying genes of some species of Asian raspberry, has a sweet, delicate flavor unlike any other variety. Physically, the berries are similarly sweet and delicate, a pale, pinkish yellow. Their fragility makes them a poor commercial fruit so you won’t see them for sale. Grow them.

Asparagus Cutting?

Seems like last week’s blog post about my method for reducing weeds in the asparagus patch caused a lot of confusion. I wrote that I cut down all the spears before applying compost and wood chips, and many people thought that was not supposed to be done until autumn.

During the harvest season, which here is from the time the spears first show until the end of June, the spears are constantly being cut down for eating. All are regularly cut, even those too spindly for eating. Doing so helps starve out asparagus beetles, which are gone by July.

So consider my final, early July lopping back of any and all spears just like a final harvest. From then on, spears are left grow to their heart’s content, fueling the roots for next year’s spring and early summer harvest. The bed gets its final cutting down in autumn, when the ferns yellow to indicate that they’re no longer feeding the roots.
Asparagus growing through mulch
I was a little nervous about the compost plus wood chip smothering asparagus plants in addition to weeds. Not to worry. It’s a few days after the treatment and some fronds are already a few feet high. And so far, no weeds.

More details about growing and use of berry (and other) fruit plants can be found in my books Grow Fruit Naturally and Landscaping with Fruit.


The Season Ends

Asparagus season has ended here now, after more than two months of harvest. From now till they yellow in autumn, the green fronds will gather sunlight which, along with nutrients and water, will pack away energy into the roots, energy that will fuel next year’s harvest.
Weeding asparagus in past years
In addition to dealing with the weather, the plants have to contend with weeds. I have to admit, despite being the author of the book Weedless Gardening, that my asparagus bed each year is overrun with weeds, mostly two species(!) of oxalis, creeping Charlie, and various grasses. Also weeds parading as asparagus, self-sown plants. This, even though I planted all male varieties. Any batch of male plants typically has a certain, low percentage of female plants. (Still, my garden is weed-less even if it’s not weedless.)

I always wondered about the recommendation to plant asparagus crowns in deep trenches that are gradually filled in with soil as the new plants grow. I read that one reason is that crowns deep in the soil results in thicker, albeit fewer and later, spears. But as if to decide for themselves, research also shows that , over time, shallowly planted crowns naturally settle deeper into the ground, and deeply planted crowns inch upwards.
Weedy asparagus bed
Another reason for deep planting is, perhaps, to protect the crown from tiller blades or hoes. I don’t till and, since the plants anyway take the matters in their own hands, I set my asparagus, years ago when I planted them, just deep enough to get the crowns under the ground.

Weed Control(?) for Next Year

But back to the weeds in my asparagus bed . . .  This year I’m determined to get more of the upper hand with weeds. To whit: Yesterday I cut everything — weeds and asparagus — in the bed as low as possible. A bush scythe, which is a scythe with a short, heavy duty blade, does this job easily and quickly; a weed whacker might also work. One year a battery powered hedge trimmer got the job done. For me, the scythe works best.

In years past, I would cut everything to the ground, as I did this year, and then I’d top the bed with a couple of inches of wood chips.

This year, to get better weed-less-ness and to offer the asparagus plants a treat as thanks for the many spears that went into cold soup, hot vegetable dishes, and the freezer, I offered them compost. Although I make lots of compost, that compost is generally reserved for beds within the vegetable garden proper and potting mixes as well as, this year, my newly planted grape vines, and pear and apple trees.
Asparagus bed with compost
Asparagus is worth it, so I dug into my most finished compost bin, filled up two garden carts, and slathered a one-inch layer of compost over the whole bed. That inch of dense, dark compost should go a long way to smothering small weeds, which have little reserve energy. The compost then got topped with a couple of inches  of wood chips. Asparagus bed with compost and chipsThe compost will nourish the asparagus . . . and the weeds, most of which I hope will be sufficiently young or weakened to not push up through the compost and the wood chips to light.

Compost Needed

That was a lot of compost to part with. No problem, because I’ve also been making lots of compost. Plus, a few bins I built last year, each with about one-and-half cubic yards of compost, are ready to use or will be so in the coming weeks.

The bins themselves are made from 1×6 boards of composite wood (a mixture of waste wood, recycled and new plastic, and some type of binding agent), such as used for decking, notched to stack together Lincoln-log style. It keeps moisture and heat in, and scavengers and weeds more or less out, and doesn’t degrade, as did my previous wood bins.

I feed my compost pets — earthworms, fungi, bacteria, and other organisms — hay from my small field, manure from a nearby horse farm, kitchen waste, old garden plants, and anything else biodegradable. The latter category has included old leather shoes and garden gloves, jeans, and, as an experiment, biodegradable(?) plastic spoons.

The compost also gets occasional sprinklings of soil, to add bulk, and ground limestone. Periodic liming is generally needed to counteract the acidity of most soils of northeastern U.S.; my soil gets limed indirectly, via the compost.
Feeding compost
Water is commonly the most limiting ingredient in home composts. Lots of water is necessary to percolate down into a pile. Rather than getting bored with a hose wand, after finishing an extended composting session, I set up a small sprinkler on the pile, whose spread is as wide as the pile, to gently water for about 20 minutes.

Of course, the devil is in the details: how much of each ingredient to add. Not to worry, though. Any pile of organic materials will eventually turn to compost.

For my piles, I check moisture with a REOTEMP long stem moisture meter and monitor progress with a long stem compost thermometer. This time of year temperatures of the piles soar to 150°F within a few days.

My asparagus bed is worth all this.

My Dog and I Have Odd Tastes

In My Opinion . . .

Note: The following editorial comments represent the opinions of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the publisher.

I don’t understand the current — decades long, now — infatuation with the “stinking rose,” as garlic used to be called. Not to reveal my age, but I don’t remember ever seeing, smelling, or tasting garlic in my youth. Not that I didn’t; I just don’t remember it if I did. At any rate, in my family circle, at least, it would not have generated the undue enthusiasm it does these days. Whole festivals, for instance!

I don’t dislike garlic. Mostly, when I’ve used it, it’s flavor is lost when cooked. Except when roasting turns the texture satiny and the flavor bite-less; then it’s quite delicious spread on bread or baked potato, or mixed with vegetables. Mmmmm.

But still not worth planting. It’s my belief that many gardeners devote all too much space to growing garlic. Is home-grown garlic really that tasty, tastier than what you can pick off a supermarket shelf or from a bin at the farmers’ market?

I’ve seen very small vegetable gardens in which a third of the area was devoted to the stinking rose. For my money, I’d rather be picking fresh lettuce, asparagus, or peas — all of which taste significantly different and better within minutes of harvest than when bought from any market, farm or otherwise. Or peppers, tomatoes, sweet corn, or green beans, because I can choose the best tasting (to me) varieties to plant in my garden.

As you might guess, I don’t grow garlic — not in my vegetable garden, at least. Why devote even a square foot of space in that compost-rich, drip irrigated, sun-drenched ground to  such a thankless vegetable?

I do sometimes grow garlic in various patches of open ground in the large patch of gooseberries, grapes, and a miscellany of other plants behind my garden. The only improvement that soil experiences is annual mulching with autumn leaves, which has enriched the ground below with humus. But no irrigation, which the garlic, planted in early autumn and then harvested the following summer, hardly needs because it can run on rainfall that falls in autumn through spring.

Garlic doesn’t seem to get the hint that I don’t particularly want to grow it. Enough bulbils that form at the tops of scapes touch down each year to make new garlic plants. Most are spindly, giving rise to Lilliputian cloves. Garlic volunteer plantsBut if I want some garlic flavor in spring, I can pull stalks out of the ground, peel off the outer covered of leaf sheath, and chop up the ivory white lower portion for use. Many I just pull out and toss into the compost pile; the garlic is getting weedy.

Okay, you garlic lovers, go ahead and pelt me with tomatoes. But hold the garlic.

Sammy Stalking

My dog Sammy has grown very fond of stalks. Asparagus stalks. Why can’t he channel that stalky affection to the garlic sprouting behind my garden? Perhaps some culinary magic with garlic poured over his dog food and guided walks over to some of the growing clumps could bring him around.

I planted asparagus outside the fenced vegetable garden with the knowledge (ha!) that no furry animals would dine on it. Sammy has plowed his way through or gracefully leapt over the temporary chickenwire enclosure meant to keep him asparagus-free. A recently purchased electric fence should keep him at bay — also from the persimmons, another of his favorites, later in summer. Sammy & electric fence

Of Mulch Importance

On a more serious note, now, with recent rains maintaining good soil moisture, is an ideal time to mulch. Earlier this season, mulch would also have been good, except that it would have delayed soil warming and, hence, seed germination, planting and growth of annual vegetables and flowers.

Mulch spread atop dry soil has to be wetted before letting water percolate down into the ground below. Mulching chestnutsIf spreading mulch is delayed until the soil turns dry, all the more water will be required to give the soil below a good drenching.

A large pile of wood chips sits on the far side of my wood pile, compliments of local arborists. Day by day, I’m spreading it for an attractive, soil enriching, moisture sealing blanket over my soil — even around my volunteer garlic plants.


Great Asparagus Does Not Require A Green Thumb

Not to be an ingrate or a braggart, but the asparagus some friends recently brought over for our shared dinner didn’t compare with my home-grown asparagus. Not that the friends’ asparagus wasn’t good. Theirs came from a local farm, so I assume harvest was within the previous 24 hours. Asparagus harvestBut the stalks of my asparagus are snapped off the plants within 100 feet of the kitchen door, clocking in at anywhere from a few minutes to an hour of time before they’re eaten. It’s not my green thumb that makes my asparagus taste so good. It’s the fact that I can harvest it within 100 feet of my kitchen door.

But don’t take my word for it. Research has shown that asparagus spears begin to age as soon as they’re picked, the stalks toughening and sugars disappearing, and bitterness, sourness, and off-flavors beginning to develop. Yum.

Taste is just one of the many reasons to plant asparagus. Here’s more: Deer and other wildlife leave it alone so it doesn’t need to be corralled within a fence; the ferny foliage that needs to be let grow after harvest ends in early July makes a soft green backdrop for colorful flowers; a planting can pump out stalks from the end of April till the end of June (around here) for decades.Asparagus in August

Asparagus’s two potential problems are relatively minor. The first is asparagus beetle, a beetle whose eggs, which look like black specks on the stalks, hatch into slug-like young that feed on the stalks. I keep this bugger in check by picking every single stalk — even spindly, inedible ones — every time the bed is harvested. The beetle, then, has nowhere to lay her eggs. (Not in my bed, least; she can seek out some wild asparagus here and there.) And then, at the end of the season, I cut down all the browned, ferny foliage and cart it over to the compost pile, in whose depths the adults, some of which overwinter in the old stalks, meet their demise.

No pesticides, organic or otherwise, have ever been sprayed on my asparagus, so natural predators also can do their share of making asparagus beetles a non-issue. Hand-picking beetles and larvae, which I’ve never had to resort to, is another way to keep the beetles in check. (My ducks may have a “hand” in that.)

Weeds are the other potential problem in an asparagus bed. One of the worst weeds in any bed is  . . . asparagus! Each red berry dangling from the stems of a female asparagus plant houses a number of seeds that, once they hit ground level, can sprout to make new plants. The cure is to plant an all male variety of asparagus, such as Jersey Giant or Jersey Prince.

Unfortunately, a package of an all male variety can contain a few females. So, in addition to planting an all male variety, the cure for weeds is straightforward: Weed! I keep my bed regularly weeded during harvest season, then only occasionally weeded once fronds start to make the bed almost impenetrable.

Off With The Fruitlets (Some, At Least)

The slow but steadily increasing warmth this spring has been ideal for tree fruits (not so much the rainy weather). A bumper crop of fruitlets perch on branches of my apple and pear trees. It’s time to remove most of them.

These plants are genetically programmed to set more fruits than they could possibly have the energy to ripen. Spring presents many hazards to those blossoms, including killing freezes and insect pests. So, come June, when some of these threats have passed, fruit trees naturally shed excess developing fruitlets. But not enough.

The trees’ goals are to make seeds to make new trees. The seeds are enclosed within fruits that appeal to wildlife, who then help disperse the seeds. Those fruits might be good enough for wildlife, but not for you and me. For larger and more flavorful fruits, even more need to be removed than are shed by the “June drop.” Only 5 to 10 percent of apple blossoms need to set fruit for a full crop.

So I’m spending some time pinching or snipping off excess fruitlets, saving those that are largest and most free from blemishes, with a few inches between those that are left.Thinning apples

Fruit thinning is not only for flavor. A large crop one year bodes for a small crop the following; fruit thinning evens out any feast and famine cycle. The thinning also reduces some pest problems caused by fruits hanging too close to each other.

Pros And Cons Of Bad Weather (For Humans)

The recent spate of rainy weather has been accompanied by cool temperatures, which some plants enjoy and others wait out. Peas, cabbage, kale, and radishes are having a grand old time; sweet corn and beans wait out the cool weather. Flowering alliumsThe most dramatic response has been in the delphiniums, dames rockets, and giant alliums. With cool temperatures, their colorful displays go on and on.

Asparagus doesn’t mind hot or cool weather. The cool weather does slow down spear production, which made for insufficient harvest to share the day my friends came to dinner.Delphinium at back of garden


First Harvest At Season’s End

Finally, I’m harvesting endive from the garden, just as planned when I settled seeds into mini-furrows in a seed flat back in July. After leaves unfolded on the seedlings, I gently lifted them up and out of their seed flat, helping them up with a spatula slid beneath their roots, and into individual cells in a GrowEase Seed Starter.Endive seedlings

Also as planned, a bed in the vegetable garden was freed up from harvested sweet corn in early September. After removing corn stalks and slathering an inch of compost on top of the bed, the endive plants were snuggled in, 2 rows down the 3-foot-wide bed, with one foot between the plants in each row. In October, I laid row cover over the plants, plus a tunnel of clear plastic film supported by hoops, to protect plants from bitterest cold.Endive under plastic tunnel

Endive harvest could have begun earlier. But there was no need to, with so much other fresh salad fixings in the garden. And cold weather anyway helps bring out the best in endive. The inner leaves, partially blanched as they folded in among themselves from close planting, are now especially sweet, succulent, tender, and tasty. 

What Endive, Who?

Just to be clear on the identity of my endive, it’s botanically Cichorium endivia var. latifolia, also called escarole, broad-leaved endive, or Batavian endive. Besides delicious fresh, it’s a key ingredient in the classic Italian white bean and endive soup.

I used to also grow another endive, C. endivia var. crispum, also called curly endive or frisée. It’s very similar, except for frilly leaves. In my experience, it’s less succulent and more easily damaged by cold.endive and beets

We’re not yet finished with “endives.” There’s also Cichorium intybus, also known as Belgian endive or witloof chicory, with small heads that are torpedo-shaped and pale green or white.

More machinations are needed to grow this Belgian endive, beginning with sowing in spring and waiting the whole season for a large taproot to develp. At season’s end, the roots are dug up, trimmed to a foot or so long, then packed together upright in boxes of loose potting soil, sawdust, or anything else that will hold moisture. The roots resprout, and the goal is to keep the developing heads in the dark, either by putting a few inch depth of sawdust or sand over the roots or by keeping the whole box in darkness. Too much trouble for me. Plus, very little flavor. (Also, mine weren’t all that successful.)

Bye, Bye Asparagus

Speaking of pale leaves, I’m happy that my asparagus’ leaves yellowed a couple of weeks ago. The plants had been growing vigorously all season since harvest ended in July, the green stems and leaves gathering sunlight to pump energy down to the roots, to store and then fuel next year’s growth of the young spears. Finally, the plants yellowed as what nutrients were still left in the stems and leaves headed downward, to the roots.

My short-bladed brush scythe was the perfect tool to make quick work of the plants, a fluffy addition to the compost pile.

After July, germinating and growing weeds became too hard to reach and root out among the 6-foot-high forest of feathery stalks. With the asparagus shoots and leaves cleared away, I was recently able get into that bed for a final weeding. The two-inch-deep mulch of leaf mold I spread after weeding will slow weeds down next year, conserve soil moisture, and feed soil microbes and, in turn, the asparagus plants for what I predict will be a bountiful harvest.


 Awesome, Made More So

   You would think — or I, at least, would think — that a purple and white passionflower would be more passion-inducing than one that was merely white. Not so. The white one displays a passionate juxtaposition between a pure, lily-whiteness and a wildness from the the squiggly, threadlxike rays of its corona backdropping female stigmas’ that arch over the yellow pollen-dusted anthers.White maypop flower
    A white passionflower is a rarity. Mine sprung up by chance from a batch of seeds I planted last year. Mostly the plants bear purple and white flowers.
    Most passionflowers are tropical, but this white-flowered passionflower, like its mother and siblings can survive outdoors even with our winter lows of well below zero degrees Fahrenheit. Commonly known as maypop, Passiflora incarnata is native to eastern U.S. as far north as Pennsylvania. Tropical passionflowers, are woody perennial vines; maypop is an herbaceous perennial vine, dying back to the ground each fall, but sprouting each spring from its perennial roots.
 Bluish -- a more usual maypop flower color   Vine growth begins late, typically not showing until early June here in the Hudson Valley. Summer warmth coaxes it along to begin flowering in July. Once the flowers appear, they continue almost nonstop through the summer until fall, with one to a few new flowers opening each day.
    Fruits soon follow the flowers. Yes: Fruits! Passionfruits are delicious, and maypop fruits taste pretty much the same as tropical passionfruits — the main flavor in Hawaiian punch, in case you think you’re unfamiliar with the fruit. The fruit is egg-shaped, its interior packed full of seeds, each of which is surrounded by a thick coat of deliciousness, in much the same way as pomegranate seeds.
 Maypop fruit   I haven’t figured out where to plant my maypops, so they’re still in large pots. Years ago, I had a couple in the ground at the base of a lilac tree. The maypops climbed into the lilac to put on a show through summer, after the lilac itself was no longer interesting. Now I want a fence for it to clothe in a heat-capturing spot in full sunlight. Maypop does spread underground, to the extent that it’s considered a weed in the Deep South, where it really can run wild. Spread is less here, but still, I need a location for it that takes that potential into account. Alternatively, I’ll plant it in a deep, bottomless container, such as a chimney flue.

The Other Kind of Passion

    If truth be told, the “passion” that gave passionflowers their name refers to a religious passion, the passion of Christ. The plant was a seventeenth-century teaching tool for spreading the gospel.
    Passionflower “had clearly been designed by the Great Creator that it might, in due time, assist in the conversion of the heathen among which it grows,” wrote a Christian scholar of the seventeenth century. The ten so-called petals (botanically, five petals and five petal-like sepals) were taken to represent the ten apostles present at the crucifixion. The threadlike rays of the corona were taken for symbols of the crown of thorns. The five stamens and three styles referred, respectively, to the five wounds of Christ and the three nails used in the crucifixion. Even the rest of the plant figures in, with the three-lobed leaves representing the Trinity and the tendrils representing the scourges. White maypop flower
    Passionflowers are heavenly enough to bring on a religious devotion to growing the plants. Which brings us to sex . . . The flowers are andromonoecious, which means that on every plant some flowers are perfect (have functioning male and female flower parts) and some are functionally male. Functional males have female parts but are functionally male either because their stigmas are held upwards out of the way of insect visitors or because their female parts are atrophied. So grow two plants if insects are to do your bidding, one plant if you’ll take care of pollination.
    See my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden for more — a whole chapter! — on hardy passionfruits.

“Sparrowgrass” Need Help

    My asparagus is now a six-foot-high, ferny hedge outside and along the eastern edge of one of the vegetable gardens. It’s a pretty sight until my eyes drop downward to see the weeds sprouting at the “hedge’s” feet. Not that the weeds are putting the brakes on the asparagus, but they are making seeds that then spread into the vegetable garden.Weeding asparagus
    I’ve seen gardens and farms where asparagus beds were abandoned because of weeds. Mulching and early season weeding only go so far.
    The usual recommendation for growing asparagus is to purchase roots and plant them at the bottom of a deep trench. As new shoots grow, the trench is gradually filled in with soil.
    More recent research showed that such heroic efforts were unnecessary. I planted my asparagus just deep enough to get them into the ground.
    The reason for trenching asparagus was to get the crowns low enough so that a tiller or hoe could be used to kill weeds without damaging the crown. All of which is impossible when the crowns are planted with their buds just beneath the surface.
    So these days I’m periodically crawling into the hedge, becoming very intimate with the ground there, and pulling out all the weeds.