Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sexism in the asparagus patch

I wanted to show you a photo of stink bugs sucking on my asparagus berries, but I didn't get around to taking it in time, and now the bugs are not cooperating (they are all trying to get into my house instead).  So you get unmolested asparagus berries, with possible stink bug damage on berry at top.

But why berries on the asparagus to begin with?  (Don't eat them, by the way; they are mildly poisonous to humans.)  Asparagus is dioecious, producing separate male and female plants.  The female plants are less productive (making fewer spears) because some of their energy goes into seed production, by means of these berries.  Another problem with female plants is berries dropping and producing new plants, both in the asparagus bed (causing crowding) and outside (necessitating weeding or transplanting).  If you have extra space and are willing to transplant, this can be a bonus.

"All-male" hybrids have been developed to address this issue; if you plant these, you get a more vigorous yield.  What's interesting, though, is that I chose all-male hybrids for both my home garden and the demo garden, and yet I can still take photos of female plant berries.  A skim of multiple extension webpages on asparagus finally brought me to an article from Virginia Tech by a North Carolina extension agent that admits "all-male" means about 93% male, the rest of the plants female.  The demo garden plants are about 80% male; my bed at home, however, is about 60% female.  Something is amiss.

It's all growing very well, however, so I am not complaining.  Whether you choose an all-male hybrid that may turn out to be sexually confused, or an heirloom variety that is half-male, half-female in distribution, you can still have a vigorous planting if you prepare the soil well.  Now is a good time to start thinking about that, if you plan to make the commitment to asparagus next spring.  (It is a commitment: a well-planted asparagus bed can supply you (or your successors on that land) for 20 years.)  You can find planting advice at a number of extension sources including our own Grow It Eat It.  Manure, compost, or other nutritious organic materials are a must.

Asparagus flowers, pollinated by bee, back in May:
Asparagus berries in green stage (photo by Patrick Smith):

Asparagus beds can be an aesthetic component of your garden; the ferns are attractive and make a good tall backdrop.  (I suspect deer will eat the spring spears, though, if you don't fence them.)  Mine started browning earlier than usual this dry year, in late summer.  There is controversy in the horticultural world about whether to cut down the ferns after frost (preventing berry drop and protecting against disease) or leave them standing until spring (providing natural mulch for crowns and early spear growth).  I think this year I will cut them down.  For one thing, it helps in getting out the weeds hiding in the center of the bed.  (At home, I have an elderberry sucker growing there, offspring of a shrub cut down over a year ago.)

You don't need a huge space to grow asparagus; 10-12 plants will yield a nice supplement to your spring meals starting in the second or third year (do not cut in the first year).  You can grow those plants in about 30-40 square feet.  Asparagus can be started from seed, but crowns yield much faster and are more reliable (supposedly) for those all-male hybrids.  Maybe mine just don't want to hang out only with the guys?

2 comments:

  1. I'm glad you mentioned they shouldn't be eaten. I was just about to experiment...with my life!

    Great info - thanks!!

    ReplyDelete
  2. One wouldn't kill you - but better not to make jam out of them!

    ReplyDelete

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