By Andrew Campbell
When you walk into the store at Brantwood Farms, your senses take over. The smell of warm apple pie, the bright baskets of local fruits and vegetables and right front and centre the sight of fresh asparagus. And by fresh, we are talking picked in the morning and for sale that afternoon. The Pate family has been farming since 1891 in this area, with the latest generation including Kara (along with her brother Andrew and parents Tom & Dawn). For Kara, there is something special about how simple asparagus can be to cook. A little oil, sea salt and lemon juice, grilled on the barbeque is a favourite for her to kick off an always busy growing season. After all, asparagus is one of the first locally grown crops you can find in Canada, peaking through the warming spring soil in early May. If you have questions about how Kara and other farmers grow asparagus, we’ve got the answers below.
Asparagus is one of the first seasonal crops you see in the grocery store each year. It is a sure sign that spring is finally here.
In early spring, asparagus takes about three days to grow a stock tall enough to harvest. But as the days warm up and the season really gets going and asparagus can grow up to 25 centimeters (10 inches) within a 24 hour period.
Asparagus season typically begins in early May, but depending on the weather can start in early or late April. Asparagus season lasts six to eight weeks in which farmers are harvesting every day. When the weather is sunny and warm, asparagus grows quickly, and sometimes pickers go through the field twice a day to pick the stocks.
When do you pick asparagus?
Asparagus is ready to pick when it is 20 to 25 cm (8 – 10 inches) tall. Asparagus is picked entirely by hand with harvest crews riding through the field on harvest carts. A knife can be used to cut asparagus, but snapping off the stalk is also easy and efficient. You just snap it, toss it in a bucket, and then it gets graded before shipping.
How do you plant asparagus?
Farmers plant asparagus crowns, a stem attached to a long string of roots, which are planted about 15 to 20 cm (6 to 8 inches) under the ground. The asparagus is left to grow for a year and harvested the following year. During the first harvest, farmers have a two week harvest period. The second year of harvest farmers have a four week period and by the third or fourth year, the asparagus can be harvested for the full six to eight week period.
Farmers plant asparagus crowns 30 cm (12 inches) apart in rows. The plants continue to grow and spread over the years and fill in the rows. Once established, asparagus is a very productive crop.
How long do asparagus plants last?
Asparagus plants can last up to twenty years, which is great in terms of not having to replant each year. However, as asparagus must be picked by hand, it is also very labour intensive.
I can’t find asparagus in July. Does it just stop growing?
Once it gets really hot outside, the asparagus plants grow really quickly and get to be about waist high and very thin. At this stage asparagus get a woody texture and plants start to go to seed. When these changes take place, harvesting stops, as the quality of the asparagus has diminished.
What happens to the asparagus for the rest of the year?
Asparagus is left standing in the field over the summer, fall and into the winter. In the spring, before harvest starts, the field of asparagus is mowed down and farmers prep the field to start over.
Try this Recipe:
Spring Green Veggie Fritters by Patricia Chuey, RD
For more information on asparagus, go to Asparagus Farmers of Ontario
For more recipe ideas, go to Foodland Ontario
Full Asparagus Video From FreshAirFarmer Andrew Campbell’s Dinner Starts Here Series