The Asparagus Guild

I grew asparagus from seed and planted it out in my raised beds here at home last year with the plan to dig the crowns and transplant plant them in a prepared bed out at the farm. Unfortunately I planted the seedlings out too soon last spring and it seems I lost most of them to a late frost.

I do have a wee bit of hope there will be more survivors after reading something Mark Shepard, author of Restoration Agriculture, wrote about his early asparagus experiences. I can’t remember where I read it (maybe in his book?) or the exact details, but apparently he planted a bunch of asparagus – it didn’t come up and he wrote it off as a loss, but the following year – boom! – the asparagus came up in full flush.   I propagated 200 seeds – planted out at least 160 or more seedlings, but saw only about 20 -30 plants survive the frost. Keep your fingers crossed…

The plan is to plant them out in one of the contour beds in zone two we initially prepared a couple of years ago and grew potatoes in. We have since been building that clay soil up with compost, straw mulch and spoiled haylage, so I hope the asparagus will be happy in their new home. Having said that – with the mild winter and unseasonably warm temps in the last two weeks I may have missed my window of opportunity to dig them up while still dormant. Little spears are popping up everywhere. I can’t find anywhere in my research whether or not it would be a bad idea to dig them now or if I should wait until they go dormant this fall. Anyone out there have any advice for me? I wasn’t planning on harvesting anything for another year or so anyway.

The plan is to plant the asparagus amongst fruit trees and other plants in beds we prepared a few years ago and grew potatoes in. There are five of these beds on contour ranging 80 ft to 90 ft long.  I will be planting about five fruit trees in each. I want to design guild of plants in this space that complement each other not only visually, but by their contributions to us, their companions and most importantly – the soil.  Plant guilds are a much more sophisticated version of companion planting. For some great examples of plant guilds check out the free e-book available on Midwest Permaculture. As we plant out the rest of the contour beds adding more trees, shrubs, vines, etc… this will become more of a food forest.

M sketched this up for me while I prepared dinner the other night. It shows the different layers above and below the ground in the first bed we will plant. I wish I had his mad drawing skills…

IMG_0308

  • Asparagus – perennial food source.  The stalks and ferns will die back to the ground providing organic matter and mulch for the soil
  • Globe Artichokes  – besides being another delicious perennial source of food I think they will help hold up the asparagus ferns later in the season. The dying stalks will serve as a “chop and drop” mulch in the fall breaking down and adding organic matter to the soil
  • Sunflowers – like the artichokes they will help keep the asparagus ferns from falling over, add beauty and provide a food/seed source. Being an annual, when they die back not only will they provide mulch material in the fall, the roots will also die out building organic matter in the soil. With its deep roots it is considered a dynamic accumulator drawing up calcium, manganese, iron and zinc from the subsoil
  • Lemon Catmint – mints are an insectary plant that attract beneficial insects. Its roots  accumulate potassium and sulfur. I have a lot of seed that needs to be used up and I think it smells great
  • Strawberry Clover – a perennial ground cover that will serve as a living mulch holding moisture in and fixing nitrogen as the plant cycles. It accumulates phosphorus. I’ve read the strawberry variety isn’t as invasive as red or white perennial clovers.
  • Rhubarb – another tasty perennial food source. I think the leaves will add a nice contrast to the asparagus ferns – the eyes gotta eat too – and when the leaves die out they will become mulch
  • Parsley – perennial, edible, herbaceous plant that is a dynamic accumulator of potassium, calcium, manganese and iron. Since you don’t harvest the roots, this should grow fine with the asparagus. Any deep rooted vegetables or herbs that have to be dug up to harvest are not a good companion for asparagus. You don’t want to disturb asparagus roots.
  • Strawberries – delicious fruits and a nice ground cover. I read somewhere that the asparagus ferns help camouflage the berries from the birds.
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About La Femme Farmer

Starting up a small farm is the goal for the second half of my life. It's a late start I know, but better late than NEVER! Growing food, cooking and eating are my passions and now I get to do it full-time (and then some). and yes, that's a tomato from my garden!
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13 Responses to The Asparagus Guild

  1. Masha Zager says:

    This is the direction we’re going in too. It’s taking a few years to get it all working together. Don’t forget the alliums (though not too close to the asparagus).

    • Besides being better for the plants, better nutrition for us and better for the soil – it’s so much more interesting to look at a beautiful grouping of plants and trees than boring monoculture rows.
      Thanks for the allium reminder – it just so happens I have tons of chive seeds!

  2. farmerkhaiti says:

    That is a lovely drawing! Reminding me we have a bunch of crowns all planted in what used to be our garden, will have to keep an eye out for them this spring- guess they’ll sort of go rougue and that’s cool. I bought a bunch of asparagus seed to try direct seeding right into a nice bed, but you started seeds and transplanted huh? I really want to avoid that if possible…

  3. It’s really too cold, wet and shady here at our house to start anything with direct seeding and since we are only out at the farm on weekends with no irrigation in place, direct seeding doesn’t work so well there either. When we are out there full time I will direct seed for sure. Basically I’m using our current home as a nursery to grow perennials for the farm. I plant out at the farm when we have an area properly prepared and the plant is big enough to survive on its own.

  4. Bill says:

    We have a large asparagus patch, but I planted all of ours from crowns. I’m sorry that I didn’t know about permaculture when setting up our gardens. I like the guild idea. Does that mean you won’t weed the asparagus? I like the thought of not having that job anymore. I’ve been mowing and burning the fronds in the winter, as it’s my understanding that asparagus beetles overwinter in them, but I’m really not sure if it’s the right thing to do.
    I’m not sure who recommended Restoration Agriculture to me (it might have been you), but I just bought a copy and plan to start on it soon. Looking forward to it!

    • Yep you are right, we hope that by planting a poly culture we will avoid some of the hopping from plant to plant, parsley, a little diotamacious earth, and some chicken action will help. Check out the organic plus chicken citation in here http://www.mofga.org/Publications/MaineOrganicFarmerGardener/Spring2011/Asparagus/tabid/1867/Default.aspx

      • M – the article you linked to has a lot of tilling and herbiciding recommendations I wouldn’t follow. The chicken discussion is pretty far down. Also, the article is geared towards large scale production, so a lot of their techniques aren’t appropriate/necessary for smaller scale market garden ops.

      • Yeah I know but… Chickens. Break the bug cycle. Find the good even surrounded by the bad you know. 🙂

    • I don’t think it is too late to incorporate some companion plants in your asparagus patch or other gardens. Just start tucking things in here and there. Maybe just start on the ends or edges by planting flowering plants to attract pollinators and other beneficial insects. The addition of a ground cover will help to keep weeds at bay – remember weeds are just plants in the wrong spot!
      I read Restoration Agriculture when it first came out plus I heard Shepherd speak at the Permaculture Voices conference I attended last year, so it may have been me, but I know Sailors Small Farm mentioned reading his book recently. Regardless – I think it will rock your world! Keep in mind he is trying to convince/convert big Ag that there is way to do large scale Ag sustainably. Having said that – it is a VERY worthwhile read. I walked away with a zillion ideas from it. Another book you might consider is Ben Falk’s The Resilient Farm and Homestead.
      Thanks for the visit Bill!

  5. @Bill, yup I think you would get something out of Restoration Agriculture, and it’s a quick enough read that you might get to skim through it before your season starts to get too busy for reading…just.

    I don’t really remember the asparagus thing in the book, but that doesn’t mean much – it’s the sort of book you could read a few times and have different take aways depending what mind set you’re in…if you’re focussed on asparagus, it’s probably there. I was focussed on nut trees when i was reading it, so guess what it felt like the book was about 🙂

    I know practically nothing about asparagus, but we are planning to set up a raised bed for it this year, my understanding being that it needs good drainage, which I don’t really have. I was thinking of buying crowns next year for it…are there pros and cons between crowns and growing from seed – apart from the time lag?

    I love the guild idea. I’ve done some reading about this over the years, but I’ve never heard of asparagus as part of a guild. Makes sense though and the height and sturdiness of the artichokes and sunflowers would totally work to support the ferns I should think.

    M is a man of many talents, clearly. This is yet another lovely little sketch.

  6. Hey there SSF! Glad to see you are back in blogsville.
    Most references on asparagus say crowns are the way to go because you get to harvest sooner than growing from seed but Steve Solomon disagrees in his book Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades. His reasons to grow from seed are 1. You can afford to destroy the female plants 2. A lot of extra productive hybrids are only available via seed 3. Seeds are waaay cheaper than crowns and 4. Because you can afford to cull the female plants, your bed will be begin heavy production a year sooner than growing from crowns. I had visions of 200 asparagus plants and would have had pretty close to that had I not been too eager to get the plants out of my propagation room, but my main reason – I couldn’t afford to buy that many crowns!
    Ever since I started to think about growing asparagus I’ve been searching for an interesting and attractive way to grow them that wasn’t a monoculture. There are lots of people asking the same question on permies.com so I pieced together a few suggestions and added some of my own ideas. We’ll see how it turns out. I’ve never grown asparagus so my theory here may prove to be folly, but what the heck – I only spent a couple dollars for seed!

  7. Lindsay says:

    I love your ideas! I’m planting asparagus crowns in a small hugelkultur garden, but I want to make it a guild. Did this work well for you? I’d love to see pictures!

  8. Thanks Lindsay! So – we didn’t end up putting the asparagus in with the fruit trees – i think it was a timing issue and we had some other beds prepped and ready for planting. If you take a look at this post https://lepetitcanardfarm.wordpress.com/2016/07/11/planting-out-the-cistern-garden/
    you can see where we ended up planting the asparagus – same garden – just different beds and not with fruit trees. We planted them with artichokes, bloody sorrel, strawberries and over the summer we also grew some butternut squash and tomatillos in there. It worked out great. I have some more recent pics of how everything did just haven’t had time to do a post yet. We have been swamped and are very far behind on the blog, but hope to catch up in the next month or so.
    Thanks so much for visiting our blog!

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