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GARDEN MAIDEN: Asparagus and rhubarb always in the crop plan

It’s the middle of May and I have exactly two rows of seeds planted in the garden. Four sacks of potatoes are making it through the frying pan quicker than into the earth, and I have only tomato seedlings ready for transplanting.

Season setbacks might have panicked me in a former era of my life, but these days I am trusting the cycles of regenerative energy to lighten the ache of professional distraction and lack of interest in Community Supported Agriculture by treasuring a few premium crops on our little homestead.

A few years back you might remember one of my first projects to preserve Mom and Dad’s roots on the farm. The breaking of a cold spring on the cusp of Mother’s Day seems a perfect fit to report on two crops that will always make the crop plan: asparagus and rhubarb.

I’m giddy with delight to be in year three of production on the incubator patch of asparagus I planted from seed in the summer of 2015. (For a full article on asparagus growing, search Garden Maiden May 2017 archives.)

Asparagus is a perennial crop producing spears from a single crown of rhizomatic rootstocks for up to 20 years. In a well-maintained row cropping field, asparagus might also self-seed when allowed to fern out at the end of July and put on red berries containing three to eight seeds per berry.

What the birds don’t eat, the earth swallows whole with winter snow. The spring thaw melts the protective cover and gives life to tiny fern-like stems of new asparagus.

What the spring cultivator lets stand becomes a tiny but tall flag of first year asparagus, ferning out fully even before the first mature spears poke through the soil in early May.

With a bit of careful mulching and recollection next season, the asparagus seeds become established crowns the following season, producing pencil thin stems, called sprues, that get cut once about two weeks into the growth cycle, then left to go to seed.

Finally, the following spring, sprues become spears and spears become edible. Of course, the first spears of the season rarely make it to the table on my farm. It has become a sort of sacred rite to snap the first spears and munch on them right in the garden, honoring their crisp fresh pea flavor and officially christen the season’s flavor with a chomp of approval.

Two summers ago, I began an effort to rejuvenate the dwindling crop of asparagus that my dad ploughed in by horse when we moved to Illinois.

Going on 30 years of production, much of the asparagus patch had stopped producing and so I set out to grow asparagus from seed. Rather than attempt a futile restoration in a spread out, sparse asparagus patch, I planted seeds every ten inches or so and have fostered what I refer to as our incubator patch.

Two years later, asparagus sown from seed has advanced from quickly feathering spindly sprues to some seriously scrumptious 2-inch thick spears.

Now, it is time. Time to make the move. Time to restore these established crowns in our asparagus bed. Generally, as long as new spears are continuing, an established crown can be cut for up to eight weeks. In this case, I intend to disperse the incubator patch and transplant these crowns.

I want to do that with plenty of time for the plant to shoot up more spears and be left alone for the month of June and July, watered consistently, fertilized and allowed to sink their roots into their forever home. Heavy mulch this fall will keep weeds from creeping in and make a clear path for the tiller to keep plenty of distance from new crowns next spring.

Now that I’ve identified a successful location for the three year incubator cycle, I will multiply the effort tenfold to have a full grown asparagus patch by 2021.

In a similar attempt to preserve the origins on the farm, I moved a congested row of rhubarb Mom had put in back in the ’80s. Like so many gardeners, she thought the site would be ideal along the property line, but somehow became heavily trafficked upon by Dad’s expansion of the outbuilding several years later.

At the request of a CSA member, I dug up the endangered clumps to discover another issue: crown rot. Crown rot is a disease resultant of a soil-borne fungus that survives indefinitely when soil is wet and heavy.

Prevention is the best method by rotating crops and adding plenty of organic matter to garden beds season to season. However, if caught early, a heavy dose of fungicide can often kill the infestation.

Synthetic pesticide is a go-to for reversing the site contaminant, so I was grateful relocation was in order as I could avoid the use of harsh chemicals on my land.

Instead of treating the ground, I treated the crowns by first removing the centers of the rotting crown and disintegrating them. I soaked the remaining crowns in chamomile tea, a mild fungicide, at an intense dose in an overnight bath just prior to splitting them up, taking the several clumps and spreading them a foot apart along a 50-foot border of healthy garden soil.

Subsequent to transplanting, I applied two more applications of chamomile tea blended with tea tree essential oil as the new growth appeared over a 30-day interval.

Today, only one of the 50 or more plants has tiny brown spots that may be the first signs of crown rot, or may just be happy rhubarb plants with a bit of cosmetic rust that will never harm the harvest.

Either way, I will continue the sanitation regimen again this season and heavily fertilize the patch once harvest subsides to baby the roots a bit and get them strong and healthy for another decade of production.

Like establishing new asparagus, the first season of rhubarb growth should not be harvested. During the second year, harvest all but four or five main stalks, then let the plant fill out. Cut any upshooting seed head stalks at the base of the plant to encourage crown development below ground and disrupt weakening of the plant that occurs when it’s allowed to seed out.

Rhubarb leaves are toxic, so only the stalks are consumed. Formally called petioles, the leaf stalks should be grasped a few inches from the ground and yanked firmly rather than cut in order to limit the stress on new growth from the middle of the plant.

Though rhubarb took thousands of years to make its way to America, it was our cultivation and hybridizing that shifted its value from a mystical purgative medicinal root to an edible jam and jelly staple in colonial America — and a highly valued short season bakery flavor to this day.

Share your rhubarb recipes with me at www.gardenmaiden.com.

HOLLY KOSTER is a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener who resides in Grand Ridge. She can be reached by emailing tammies@mywebtimes.com; via Twitter, @gardenmaiden9; or on Facebook, facebook.com/gardenmaiden9.

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