The first freshly picked spears of asparagus are a welcome gift after a long winter. Elsewhere in the garden, early spring planting takes a while to show results, as potato stems break the soil surface, pea tendrils grasp their trellis netting and the green fuzz of newly sown carrots appears in rows. Not much is ready to pick yet — maybe some over-wintered scallions and spinach. But up pops the asparagus from its permanent bed, the reward of work done in the past. Only after three years of its growth can you pilfer the spears without robbing the plants of their strength, and only for a six-week season.
Fresh new asparagus is so delicious that there’s no need to dress it up. Steam it lightly, slick it with butter, sprinkle on some salt — that’s it. We can’t seem to get enough of it, so there it is on the plate every day, next to everything. Any spears the thickness of a pencil or greater are cut to the ground to keep the plants producing new ones. And they do, at an ever-increasing pace.
In the third week of harvest, asparagus soup is on the table, and asparagus in cream sauce is poured over buttered toast. By the fourth, extra spears are piling up in the fridge. Some are offered to friends or taken to work. It seems like a good time to have a little dinner party. Asparagus gratin? Asparagus quiche? Asparagus with a cheesy sauce? As always, the continued abundance of one particular crop in the garden inspires creativity. How about tossing this one into a fettuccine Alfredo? Inventing asparagus guacamole? Or making an open-face omelet topped with asparagus, scallions, feta cheese, smoked salmon and the new leaves of tarragon?
In the fifth week, it’s tempting to stop picking asparagus for a while, but if we do, the spears will all grow tall and woody, and the feast will come to an end. It’s possible to freeze part of the harvest, but some vegetables freeze better than others, and asparagus tends to be mushy when thawed. This is the time when bundles of homegrown asparagus appear for sale at the local food co-op and are dropped off at the food pantry, because the final week is approaching and, even in its excess, asparagus seems too precious to waste. We stop picking after the sixth week so as not to stress the plants any further, and allow them to go to leaf. So we have one more meal of it, maybe just steamed and buttered, and let the tall stems grow and erupt in fernlike foliage. We put down a hay mulch to help keep out the weeds that can ruin even an established bed. The tall, abundant plants are a welcome sight, the perfect backdrop for a garden, equally handsome when they turn a gold color in fall before dying down and going dormant — until spring.
Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Ornamental peppers look great in containers but are virtually inedible: Plant compact sweet pepper plants for decoration and eating. Attractive varieties include Marconi, Corno di Toro, Sweet Banana, Fish and Jimmy Nardello. There’s still time to start pepper plants from seed for planting out in six weeks, but for rapid germination and growth, use a heat mat.
— Adrian Higgins