As the days become longer and warmer, they often bring back spring memories for me. When I was in middle school, I would ride around the Iowa countryside with my mom. These trips would be filled with impeccable musical voices and long talks about the world around us. But one specific ride stands out to me. The ride where my mom pulled the car over to the side of the road. Reached in the back seat of the car, grabbed a plastic bag, and told me to get out. As alarming as all this may sound, my mom, with her keen eyesight, spotted a patch of one of Iowa’s finest vegetables, asparagus. And my mom was always prepared to harvest something worthy of adding to dinner.
Asparagus is easiest to locate in the “wild” after it has gone to seed in late summer. Its tall seedy leaves wave a flag to next year’s harvest area for those that know how to look for it. But not everyone is ready for a quick romp in the ditch to gather a tasty treat, and luckily, you can find asparagus in many supermarkets year-round and farmers markets during the spring season.
I think the better question may be, “why not asparagus”? This vegetable is versatile and can be eaten raw, broiled, grilled, microwaved, or my favorite, roasted. When cooked, asparagus’ flavor transforms into a nutty-slightly bitter that hits the back of your tongue begging for another bite. Rich with vitamins like C, E, and K this high fiber vegetable has been linked to reducing blood pressure and to improving gut health.
If its flavors weren’t enough, asparagus is a perennial crop that can be grown from seed, or a root cutting known as a “crown”. Once established (2-3 years after planting), the plant grows each year without having to be replanted and can live up to 15 years. The longevity of the crop provides food security for gatherers, and an early season crop for farmers and gardeners to harvest.
Asparagus farming in Iowa…
Establishing a bed of asparagus takes time and planning. Cultivated varieties lack some of the competitive genetic features that wild asparagus has, making it a plant that needs to be maintained to reduce competition, like weeds. The plant will live up to 15 years (or longer) and farmers and gardeners want to make sure it’s in a place that will get at least 6 hours of sunlight and has soil that drains well. Once the location is determined a furrow, or shallow trench, is dug and crowns are placed along the bottom of the furrow and covered with soil. Crown starters come in male or female, and most large operations grow male asparagus because they produce larger stalks.
Most of Iowa’s asparagus farms have established beds (some cover up to 8 acres of land!), and since the plant is perennial, the farmer gets to skip the planting season that is experienced by corn and soybean farmers. And what do they do instead of plant? They wait for the glorious warm spring days to see the little heads of asparagus popping up and jump right into harvest.
Harvesting asparagus is short lived in Iowa and only occurs for two months starting in April when the temperatures increase into the 50 and 60s and ending in May. When the spears reach 6-8 inches, it’s time to harvest. And though a farmer may have acres of the vegetable, this crop is harvested by hand. Bending over and either cutting or snapping the spears, each spear is taken from the field, washed, and then prepared for bundling and selling. Julie Vanderpool reflected on the 2022 harvest in an interview with Bob Bjorn (Iowa Farm Bureau), and though the crop came up late, her 8 acres of asparagus will still yield around 10,000 pounds, that’s 180 pounds per day to be harvested!
Though the asparagus plant can produce multiple spears in a season, asparagus farmers let the plant go to “seed” after 1-2 cuttings. This is an important part of asparagus cultivation because it allows the plant to photosynthesize (learn more HERE). Otherwise, the plant wouldn’t have a body structure to capture sunlight because we harvest the stem. As the plant goes to seed the stem begins to bush out with branches and modified leaves, and sometimes berries if it’s a female plant. This bushy stage of asparagus allows the plant to gather sunlight and create sugars for food. These sugars are then stored in the plant’s roots for overwintering, and to prepare for the arrival of Iowa’s spring weather.
Try it at Home
One of my favorite ways to have asparagus is roasted in the oven or on a grill. Normally, I toss the asparagus with a little olive oil and then sprinkle with salt, but, when I’m truly feeling fancy I indulge in a recipe I saw on Iowa Ingredients.
- 1 bunch of asparagus
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/2 cup fresh dill, chopped roughly
- 1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped roughly
- 1/4 cup pecorino cheese (or parmesan)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 Tbsp. lemon juice
- Heat a grill pan to high heat. In a large bowl add asparagus and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Toss so the asparagus is coated in oil. Place the asparagus on the grill pan and heat on one side until slightly charred. Rotate and cook on the other side. Remove from heat. Place asparagus on a serving plate. Add parsley, dill, and cheese. Drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice. Season with some salt and pepper. Serve and enjoy!
- When asparagus goes to seed the long frills are considered leaves and are modified stems
- Asparagus is only harvested for two months in the spring in Iowa
- Cultivated asparagus plants are mostly male and don’t develop berries
- Asparagus has a life span of 15-20 years
Want to learn more about asparagus? Check out these great sources!