Fresh, organic asparagus sold for $4 to $7.50 per pound in Maine in May 2010.

You can buy 25 asparagus crowns, enough to plant about 25 feet, for $15.50 from Fedco Trees. If that 25-foot row yields five to seven or so pounds, your plot will save you about $20 to $50 per year in asparagus expenses, minus the initial cost of the plants and of planting. Over your 80-some-year lifetime, that’s a fair amount of change, and a beautiful and tasty perennial plant to enjoy.

To start your own asparagus planting, order one-year-old crowns this winter, from Fedco, as noted above, or Johnny’s, or other good outlets. These reputable seed companies won’t try to sell you two-year-old crowns, which don’t produce as well as the younger stock.

In the spring, select a level, well-drained spot that’s not in a frost pocket for your planting. Prepare the ground well and eliminate weeds before planting the crowns.

Then dig a W-shaped trench that’s about five inches deep if you have a heavy, clayey soil, to eight inches deep in a light, sandy soil. Add soil amendments, especially phosphorus and lime, as recommended by a soil test.

In early to mid-June, plant the crowns by spreading the roots out from the crown, over either side of the middle hump in the W. Then cover the crown with about 2 inches of soil. Over the next month, add an inch or two of soil a few times, never covering the emerging spears completely, but eventually making the trench area level with the surrounding soil. Keep the area well weeded.

Let the spears grow up into ferny stalks this first year. The shoots are not true ferns, but their delicate growth looks fern-like. They’ll photosynthesize and send carbohydrates down to the root system, strengthening the plants for next year’s growth.

In the second year, harvest spears for about 10 days by cutting them with a knife just below soil level. In the third year, harvest for two weeks; in the fourth year, three weeks; and keep adding a week per year until you’re harvesting for six weeks each year.

Keep all spears harvested to discourage asparagus beetles from laying their eggs on the shoots and to keep encouraging crowns to send up more shoots.

Maintaining an asparagus bed involves adding compost, fish meal or other organic amendments after harvest ends and while ferns are being produced and are photosynthesizing. Apply the equivalent of about 3 1/2 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet from these amendments. The organic amendments will feed the ferny growth, which will support good root growth for next year’s shoots. Some growers apply half of that 3 1/2 pounds in the spring, before the spears emerge, and the other half after harvest.

When the top growth turns yellow in late fall, the ferns can be cut down and composted, or they can be left in place until spring, to hold snow in place, which helps mulch the bed.

Poor weed control is the bane of many asparagus plots. At the 2010 Farmer to Farmer Conference held in Northport by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and Maine Cooperative Extension, we learned that chickens can be pastured in asparagus plots once the spring harvest is over. The chickens will scratch out most existing weeds and consume weed seeds, all the while fertilizing the plot.  This method of weed control is under study at the Chick Farm in Wells.

We also learned that most asparagus beds decline in productivity after a decade or so, due primarily to the soilborne fungus, Fusarium. Mark Hutton, vegetable specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, and source of much of the above information, suggested starting a new bed when the old one is seven years old. Then, the new one will be in full production once the old bed is in decline. This is more important for commercial growers than for home gardeners. Many of us will put up with declining production for years, because we can’t bear to part with our dear old asparagus plots.