How to Plant and Grow Wild Asparagus
Searching for Asparagus in the Countryside
Here, you'll find everything you need to know about how to plant wild asparagus, how to forage for it, and more, including...
- How to identify it (since it is really camouflaged among the grasses)
- Where and when to find it
- How to dig it out (with the crown or root)
- How to plant (from the crown or from seed)
- How fun it is to pick
- How to prepare a wild asparagus pasta dish!
How to Identify Wild Asparagus Plants
The wild asparagus plant, produced without any assistance or manipulation, Nature's gift, is a fine bush of green angel's hair, ghostly fine and fuzzy-looking. Country people here in Tuscany call the areas where the plant grows wild asparagiaia. The asparagus shoots grows independently from the plant, straight up, sticking from the ground like miniature fleshy Chrysler buildings. The wild kind is slimmer than its cultivated brother and unlike him, the stems are not pale but a camouflage-green. (It can be almost brown in color if it is in a shady area. It will be pale green if it stands in the sunlight all day long.) People who are good at spotting wild asparagus would also be good at spotting octopus in coral. It takes a well trained eye, but once you spot it, like kissing, you will never forget it.
Where to Forage for Asparagus Crowns
You will find wild asparagus thriving today in North America and Western Europe in gritty, grassy areas along walls, ditches, field borders, park fences, reservoir banks, wooded areas, rural roadsides, prairies, and inaccessible sea slopes—if you can spot it!
Look for it where it thrives—at the edges of undergrowth, where the sun shines. There the fine pale-green, ghostly bushes quietly hide among the stronger undergrowth of leaves and twigs. The green asparagus shoot will be standing in front of your eyes, slightly to the side of the plant, sometimes as far away as three feet. Independent and proud as it is, at first you just can't see it, till, there it is! You recognize it. And another one. And more.
It loves lots of space underground and produces more asparagus shoots as the spring season progresses. It needs to be wild. (Some farmers plant it alongside ditches to stop erosion because of its extensive root formation.)
A word of warning: Trespassing on private property is unlawful, since it is considered theft to dig plants from land you do not own. Either you'll need to procure the landowner's permission. Perhaps offer his wife a box of chocolates, promise to close the gates behind you, and not litter. Try all sincere ploys. You could even offer the farmer some of your asparagus. Why not?
What You Will Need for Your Search for the Wild Plants
For this asparagus (crown) hunt, you will need:
- a garden trowel
- a basket of some sort, or a bucket or sack to put the crowns in
- a walking stick (to move back prickly plants—make sure there are no snakes)
- long pants
- hiking boots or sturdy shoes or even Wellington boots if it is raining.
Did You Know?
- The wild asparagus we have growing in our hedgerows in Tuscany is the same as the kind found growing in Ancient Greece and Rome.
- Egyptians cultivated it from wild 2,000 years ago.
- It comes from the Persian word "asparg" which means shoot.
- It stimulates erotic desires. An Arabian love manual provides an aphrodisiac recipe since it contains plenty of vitamin A and C and taken over three consecutive days will have a most powerful effect!
How to Take Out the Plants
- First, find the asparagus plants. Here in Tuscany, they will be in the asparagaie.
- With your trowel, dig round the plant—ideally after a rain when the ground is moist. The bigger the plant, the bigger the area you'll dig round the base. The bigger the plant, the more asparagus it will yield.
- For larger plants, dig proportionately wider (say 12" wide on a large plant) and deep (about 12- 20" depending on the size of the plant) in order to avoid damaging the crowns.
- Take the crowns carefully out of the soil.
When to Plant Asparagus
They are hardy and will survive with little attention...
- as long as the soil is well-drained and moist,
- if they have about 6 feet of space around them in all directions for their roots to do their thing,
- if they're planted in a sunny location, and
- with plenty of water for the first few weeks.
If you follow these steps in the spring, you may leave them through the summer.
Smaller plants, taken out of the ground at the end of spring, need to be planted straight away before the roots dry.
If you dig up your wild asparagus crowns at the end of summer, however, you can keep them in a dry place through the winter (such as your garden shed, barn, or garage).
Plant them in early spring (after threat of frost).
Where to Plant the Asparagus Crowns
We plant our asparagus plants along the side of the house where there is a gritty soil and a lot of sun. Each year, another asparagus plant waves bushy, frizzy-green against the stone walls; nearby, a tender shoot springs up. Interestingly, many other market garden plants (such as peppers and eggplant) do not do as well as our wild asparagus in that area. We think it is because the soil isn't rich enough for them there.
Asparagus crowns, with (or without) their little tuft of green shoots, can be planted in rows in a market garden like other proud vegetables; in tilled, well watered, mulched earth, high soil pH values (around 7.0). leaving about five feet between each crown for root growth.
I think they do very well planted at a distance from each other all along garden fences, or at the back of a garden where they can spread out and multiply randomly, which they like. It's a good idea to plant them along driveways to keep the banks in place. It would be like a homecoming for them and they would trumpet their happiness.
You can harvest asparagus to eat all through the spring season (from late February till May when the grass is too high to pick them and they have begun to dry in the hotter sun, and turn weedy to look at, almost flowery). Each shoot can grow six or seven inches in one day after a rainfall.
At the end of spring, the unpicked asparagus stems grow in a wild way, bending this way and that, getting fine and becoming the plants of the next year.
When you plant from seed, it takes twice as long to get to eat the asparagus because it takes 10 weeks for them to germinate before you see any green growth. Then, you'll wait for two more years until the roots promulgate and the plant grows and produces for a decent production (instead of one lonely asparagus at a time, in two years you could have five or six).
Seeds come from the red pods which grow on the female asparagus plant. Pick the pods off the plant in late summer.
- Plant them, one by one, in containers and keep them watered. Don't forget them while all the other plants come out and do their thing. Asparagus shoots are slow performers!
- Water daily.
- After ten weeks, prepare the soil outside. Till it and add grit or sand if it is claylike. Humus will lighten it, too.
- Replant the roots 6" deep in the soil in the spring (approximately a foot apart and with 6 feet between rows because the root extends for many feet around).
- Mulch (they would love dried seaweed) to keep weeds at bay.
- A good idea is to plant garlic around the area to keep unwanted parasites away.
- Harvest (lots of times) after two years.
Wild Asparagus is Free
Wild asparagus emerges as winter begins to bore us and before spring actually takes its first leap. It's an ante-spring thing, a pre-delizia. It is the epitome of the promise of what is to come. Wild asparagus is a freak— it tastes crazy and is much better than the cultivated variety from greenhouses. It's the real thing. It's the difference between a nap in the sun with your lover and an eight hour rest on a Permaflex.
- It doesn't cost anything.
- So easy to plant and grow and it continues to produce asparagus shoots for 15 years.
- It tastes delicious!
Recipe idea from a Tuscany farmhouse: Taste it finely chopped and tossed in a small pan with olive oil, chopped garlic, and cilli pepper, poured over spaghetti (al dente), grated pecorino cheese on the top, and eat it just as soon as you get your boots off.
© 2012 Penelope Hart