In the summer of 1971, when Rita and I were just beginning
our life here in Temple, Maine, the first thing we planted, after
rototilling and forking up and weeding our prospective garden
plot as best we could, was asparagus. You’d think we would have
chosen something that would come up fast and start feeding us
in a matter of weeks, and we did get around to some lettuce and
radishes fairly soon. But as lifelong asparagus addicts, we felt we
had to get our asparagus crowns into the ground straightaway.
Conventional gardening wisdom told us we should not cut any
shoots for the first two years after planting so that all the crowns’
energy could go into putting down deep, strong roots. The
possibility that we might have to wait that long to harvest our
first asparagus only added to our frenzy to get it planted.
But conventional wisdom also told us that if the first year’s
growth was vigorous, an impatient gardener could risk defying
that two-year prohibition and sample at least a few spears the
following spring. That possibility fueled our frenzy all the more.
Other pressing chores were put on hold: insulation in the one
big multipurpose room where we would eat, sleep, read, and
write in the coming winter; new porch steps; new shingles on
the chicken coop roof. All that could wait.
The 50x50-foot plot we chose for our garden was far from
any shade trees and received the full benefit of the sun all day
long, an ideal place for asparagus. Also, because this plot was
near a recently demolished barn and had received decades
worth of cow manure, the soil was rich to begin with. Still,
once we had dug the one-foot-deep-by-one-foot-wide ditches
prescribed for an asparagus bed, we added more rotted manure
and some compost for good measure.
Given the superb soil of our garden plot and the abundant
sunshine that fell on it, plus our careful preparation, we thought
we might well be able to allow ourselves at least a taste of our
own garden-fresh asparagus the next spring; but even if that
failed to be the case, we were confident we had laid the groundwork for an asparagus-rich future.
If we had come upon Ruth Stout’s No-Work Garden Book
before we had dug our ditches, we might have spared ourselves
all that work and instead done just as she did, defying all expert
opinion and just laying some crowns on the ground and piling
mulch hay over them.
In the book, Stout also recounts how “in a dozen or more places
– in the meadow, by the woodshed, and around – asparagus
plants were showing up. Obviously, birds or wind had scattered
the seeds, and some of these ‘wild’ plants are more luxurious
than those in my regular asparagus bed.”
Though we never attempted Stout’s drop-them-and-mulch-
them method of planting crowns, we did discover, as she had,
that asparagus had no difficulty in being fruitful and multiplying
By Robert Kimber
on its own. Volunteers began popping up around our original
plantings and then started expanding outward until, today, the
asparagus patch that originally occupied a scant quarter of our
garden now inhabits a hefty third.
Asparagus isn’t, after all, just any old garden-variety
vegetable. Domesticated though it may be, it has a touch of the
wild about it. It’s spunky; it’s botanical joie de vivre incarnate.
Asparagus is a model of how to live, its spears sweet and tender,
its roots tough and enduring. Among the first plants to nose
their way into the light each spring, it explodes with vitality,
often gaining an inch or more of growth a day. Then, when the
weeks of our feasting on it are over, it spurts up above my head,
its dense, frizzy foliage hovering over the garden in a soft green
cloud. It’s always beautiful. Even late in the fall when it stands
brown and sere and its fronds become an incandescent, coppery
filigree in November sunsets, asparagus reminds us it’ll be back
next spring, raring to go. I’ve always thought of it as Rita’s totem
Back in 1971, the chorus of Hair was proclaiming from
the Broadway stage the dawn of the age of Aquarius, an era in
human history when war would be a thing of the past, when
a wave of brotherhood and sisterhood would sweep over all
humankind, washing away the evils of racism, sexism, economic
injustice, environmental degradation. We shared those worldwide Aquarian hopes and worked to realize them, doing our
modest part to help bend the arc of history a little farther toward
justice. And what dawned at the same time for Rita and me, in
our personal lives, was our age of asparagus; not our salad days
– we were well over 30 – but a richer, mellower era befitting our
advanced years, a time in which we had recently promised to be
loving and faithful to each other so long as we both should live.
True to that promise we did indeed live. I wouldn’t have missed
our 46 years together for all the world.
Robert Kimber has written often for outdoor and environmental magazines. He lives
in Temple, Maine.