Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Lessons learned from my home garden...

Grow your own asparagus
by Margie Mansure

Six years ago on newly acquired south-facing land, I attempted to grow a good variety in my small garden. After purchasing grow lights, I started heirloom tomatoes, plus edible and perennial flowers indoors. Squash, cucumbers, beans, lettuce, greens and several types of potatoes were planted directly in the soil.

My yard soon became a Mecca for bunnies, deer, fungal diseases, and all types of insects. I’m now on the path of least resistance. Without fencing, the only plants I currently care for are the kind that deer don’t seem to bother, such as some perennial flowers, culinary and tea herbs, garlic, basil, lettuce and asparagus.

Asparagus takes time to install in the garden, but after it’s in, it just keeps on giving. I ordered 50 plants from a reputable nursery. Upon arrival, they looked like white roots, called crowns. My first task was to dig 100 feet of trenches, 12 inches wide and 6 inches deep. The recommendation is to place the crowns in the trenches 1½ to 2 feet apart and top them with 2 to 3 inches of soil mixed with compost. Two weeks later, add another inch or two. Continue adding soil periodically until it is slightly mounded above surface level to allow for settling. Apply mulch to smother weeds, which compete with the young spears and reduce yields. Make sure they receive water at least twice a week the first two years. As asparagus matures, it crowds out most weeds and sends long, fleshy roots deep into the earth, so watering is less critical. Fertilize in the spring and fall.

This project is for homeowners or long term renters who plan to be in one place for a while, since you aren’t supposed to harvest any spears during the first 2 years. The plants need to put all their energy into establishing deep roots. During the third season, pick the spears over a 4-week period, and by the fourth year, extend your harvest to 8 weeks. In early spring, harvest spears every third day or so. I use a large, sharp pair of scissors to cut the asparagus spears.
The asparagus comes up early April and the harvest continues for nearly eight weeks. The initial investment really pays off. They taste great steamed, in soups, casseroles, and even frozen for later in the year.

Here is a hearty, nutritious soup that a slice of whole grain bread completes. If you are vegetarian, make with vegetable broth and leave out the chicken.

Brown rice and chicken soup with asparagus

1 cup brown rice, cooked according to package directions
equivalent of one bunch asparagus, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 pound of boneless chicken of choice, cut into small pieces
olive oil
2 celery stalks, chopped
½ onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
½ teaspoon dried thyme
6 cups chicken broth or vegetable broth
4 chopped green onions
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
freshly ground pepper to taste

Start cooking brown rice, which usually takes 45 minutes. Bring water to a boil to steam asparagus. Wash and cut asparagus into 1 inch pieces, placing steamer over water once boiling. Steam asparagus five minutes. I used my soup pot to steam the asparagus, then poured out the water and added olive oil. Add celery, carrots, onion and thyme to oil. Cover with lid and cook for 8 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. While this is cooking, sauté cut chicken in a skillet with olive oil. Add broth to soup pot and turn to high until it boils. Bring to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Turn heat off, add brown rice, soy sauce, red and black pepper. Using a hand blender, blend until creamy smooth. Add asparagus, green onions, parsley, and cooked chicken, and simmer for a few minutes.
Ladle into bowls and top with grated parmesan cheese. Serves 8.

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