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Using Compost to Establishing a Home Asparagus Bed

Asparagus is that edible plant which is among the first up each year. This spring-planted perennial can last for 20 years, with some picking begun in the second season of growth.

Modern conventional agriculture relies on herbicides to control weeds, and fertilizers for plant nutrition. If you have a five acre field of asparagus, these chemicals may be necessary. But for the home garden you can have all the weed control and fertilizer you will ever need by using the compost made from your own grass cuttings, fallen leaves, and yard trimmings.

You'll start by ordering at least 25 one-year-old asparagus plants, called crowns. Since asparagus starts growing at 50 degrees F, keep the crowns refrigerated until planting time. Asparagus is planted at a depth of about 6 inches and 12 to 18 inches apart. Follow the regular fertilizer recommendations if the area in which you are going to plant the asparagus crown is not very fertile. However, if compost is not available, spade in two shovel fulls, as well, at each plant location. Make the hole, or trench, large enough so that the roots of the crown can be spread out with the pointed bud tips facing up, cover with two inches of dirt, and water well. As the ferns grow, add another 2" until backfilled completely.

Once the ferns are on their way you can start using even more compost on the asparagus bed. During the first year add 4" of compost on both sides of the row in a one-foot band. This amazing free compost from your own backyard will suppress weeds, hold moisture in the soil, and add nutrients that the plants will need in the coming years. In succeeding years, late in the fall or early in the spring, add anther 4" to 6" onto the asparagus bed, as needed.

The only critter that can do serious damage to asparagus is--- you guessed it, the asparagus beetle. If you got it, they'll find it. Damage is done by the larvae, which eat the green covering of the ferns. Mature asparagus beds can handle some bug activity, but the young plants need protection. Rotenone, an organic root extract fatal to the critters, is an effective remedy from this springtime pest. Early in the morning, while the dew is beaded on the ferns, do a light dusting of 1% rotenone powder onto the plants. Or, following label directions, make us a solution of rotenone to spray on the ferns with a small squeeze bottle sprayer.

Though not enjoyed by all, here's a recipe for growing a European delicacy by using compost as deep mulch. It's called white asparagus; very expensive in any supermarket, if available at all. Early in the spring, before any spears are up, pile the compost over the row to a depth of at least one foot. As the white tips show through the mound, gently push the compost aside to break off the long white spears, then re-hill the compost over the row for the next day's picking. Served with an herbal cream sauce, you'll have a dish usually reserved for only the best continental restaurants, yet it's free from your own backyard.

Compost will reward you with bigger produce from the garden and more abundant flowers in the yard. The asparagus will give you the first home-grown edibles in the spring, can be grown as a tall backdrop in a planting bed, and some of its ferns added to floral arrangements throughout the summer.

Got you interested? Run the search term "asparagus crowns" on the Web to get plant sources and more information.

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Using Compost to Grow Flavorful Garlic

Garlic, the popular and healthy food ingredient, is a low maintenance plant to grow and a long keeper, once harvested. You may never need to buy it again. Just save some larger cloves for the next year's planting.

Toward the middle of fall, loosen the soil and mix in a few shovelfulls of compost. Plant each individual garlic clove 2" to 4" deep and 6" apart with the pointed end up in a sunny, well-drained location. After the initial late-season growth of roots and maybe 2" of top growth, cover the bed with about 4" of compost to protect the plants for the winter. Come spring, remove the mulch to help heat the soil and, as the garlic grows, compost can be put around the stalks to add nutrients, maintain an even soil temperature, and suppress weeds. Keep watered during the spring vegetative growth season. Then sit back and wait.

There are two types of authentic garlic. If you are growing a soft neck (sativum) garlic you will not need to "top" the plant. But, if you are growing a hard-necked garlic (ofeo), around the middle of June a pencil-thin stalk will emerge from among the leaves and start to form a loop. After it forms one full curl, cut off the top of the stalk. These pruned scapes, or seed heads, can be used in cooking in much the same way as regular garlic cloves. Harvest time comes as a third of the leaves will have died back. Each of these leaves extends down as a wrapper around the garlic bulb. The leaves that are still green represent the wrappers that are protecting the bulb, while the brown leaves that have died back have created the papers around each clove inside the bulb.

Loosen the ground with a digging fork; gently lift each garlic plant by hand. Let the plants cure in a cool darkened place. Once the plants have partially dried, the stalks can be trimmed and the bulbs braided to hang in your kitchen to use as needed. Or the stalks can be cut off and the bulbs left to dry completely. You'll want to continue this next year, once you taste the special flavor of your own fall-planted, compost-fed homegrown garlic.

Bill Pennell
Organic garlic farmer
Rootstown, Ohio