Last fall I wrote that it was time to spread compost on asparagus beds. Snow and rain throughout the winter help to bring the nutrients down to the waiting crowns.

Also, during the growing season, I mentioned that it was necessary to keep ahead of weeds in asparagus beds, because asparagus does not compete well with weeds and as a result, spears can become spindly and eventually even die back.

I took my own advice and did my best to keep my asparagus bed weed-free and also, spread a bag of composted cow manure over the bed late last fall. Those two activities ensured that this year would see my asparagus performing like champs. A spring application of compost or composted cow manure helps, too. The goal here is to have a constant, 4- to 6-inch layer of compost on your asparagus at all times.

In fact on May 1, a warm day compared to what preceded it, the asparagus bed had shot up a number of healthy-looking spears, proof that proper maintenance pays off in dividends. This rates as the earliest this bed has ever begun producing asparagus spears.

Asparagus facts

Before getting on with planting advice, here are a few interesting facts about asparagus.

Asparagus belongs in the lily family. Therefore, it seems surprising that it is also related to onions, garlic and leeks.

Once planted, an asparagus bed can keep producing for more than 20 years, thus eliminating the need for replanting every several years.

Asparagus originated in Europe, north Africa and west Asia.

Asparagus has numerous health benefits because it contains lots of fiber, as well as vitamins C, B2, B9, K and E. It also contains potassium, iron, manganese, potassium and phosphorus.

While the spears are edible, the red berries produced later in the season are toxic to humans.

Washington ranks as the top asparagus-producing state in the U.S. California and Michigan are next in line.

Plant now

As long as your soil is dry and warm to the touch, it’s OK to set out asparagus plants. Most people purchase 1-year-old crowns, but 2-year-old crowns allow for an earlier and better harvest.

Asparagus does well in in-ground beds, but these must not be in wet areas. A long single row of asparagus in an in-ground bed allows for easy weeding and easy application of compost on either side. But raised beds work well, too, and if planting in a raised bed, try not to go overboard regarding numbers. Here’s why.

The larger the bed, the more difficult to weed. And a weed-free bed is essential to asparagus health. The trick, then, is to make the asparagus bed of a size that can be easily weeded in 10 minutes or less. This ensures that the gardener won’t forgo weeding because it is simply too much of a chore.

Conventional wisdom says to wait three years before harvesting the first spears from a new asparagus bed. The Greeks have a word for that: “Baloney.” A limited harvest of two weeks or so won’t hurt a new bed one bit. The thing to watch for is diameter of the spears. When the largest spears are only the diameter of a pencil, stop harvesting.

Asparagus can put on six inches of new growth each day, given warm temperatures. The warmer the better, in fact. Keep the bed picked and the roots will continue to reward you with new spears.

Asparagus stands among the few perennial vegetable plants that gardeners rely upon. Horseradish is another, but far more people enjoy asparagus. However, for those who have never tried them, young horseradish leaves are tasty when simmered until tender and were once considered an essential spring tonic.

Finally, our Maine climate is perfect for growing asparagus, since the roots need an extended period of cold temperatures. For that reason, asparagus is difficult to raise in warm climates.

So if you have toyed with the idea of starting an asparagus bed, now is the time. Good luck with your asparagus, and most of all, enjoy.

Peas, too

Older readers will recall when local newspapers ran contests for who could grow peas to maturity by the Forth of July. Peas and salmon, wild Atlantic salmon, were a Maine staple for the weekend of the 4th. Wild salmon have gone the way of the dodo bird and are now supplanted by the farm-raised variety. But peas haven’t changed much, except that some new varieties allow for growing them in smaller spaces.

In order to have peas for the 4th or thereabouts, it becomes necessary to plant early. I once planted peas in mid-March and had peas and wild salmon that I caught for our Fourth of July holiday. But that was on a warm hillside, and now my gardens are on low ground, slow to dry out and slow to warm up.

One way around this is to select a compact variety and plant peas in a container. Last year I grew my shelling peas in an EarthBox and they did spectacularly well. This year I chose a compact variety, which should make picking the peas a bit easier, since the plants are smaller and don’t need staking. And of course this year the EarthBox will again host my pea crop.

And don’t think that growing in a container equates to a smaller harvest, because that isn’t the case at all. In fact, it appears that peas produce far better when planted in an EarthBox than those planted outside directly in the soil. The heat from the above-ground container, as well as the direct source of fertilizer, helps peas to make for a bounteous and long-lasting harvest.

So even those who eschew planting peas because of space concerns can have their peas and eat them, too, as long as they plant in a container.

Begin weeding

It’s also not too early to begin weeding. Now, with loose, damp soil, weeds come free of the ground with only light pressure. Weeding now allows your precious vegetables and flowers to grow without the need to compete with weeds for soil-borne nutrients.

And for many, weeding becomes the same as harvesting. Dandelions, a pernicious “weed,” are at their very best right now. The small, young plants are tender and far tastier than those harvested later in the season. So if you enjoy dandelions as much as I do, take some time to harvest them from your garden beds. You’ll have a nice, weed-free garden as well as a quantity of tasty and nutritious spring greens.

Tom’s tips

Did you procrastinate last year and leave the roots from Swiss chard in the garden all winter? If so, those roots will have begun pushing up new growth. I often leave my chard in over the winter precisely for this reason. Sometimes I even cover it with a layer of fir boughs to protect the plants from desiccation from cold winter winds.

However, these over-wintered chard plants never manage to put on the lush growth of those planted annually. My management plan, then, is to allow the old plants to produce what they will and to eat as much chard from them as possible and then, when the soil warms, pull out the old and replant the new. It’s an easy way to get some extra healthful leafy greens into your diet early in the season. And that’s always a good thing.