Yes, growing your own vegetables can be a lot of hard work. However, one of the ways we can reduce the amount of labor in our gardens is to plant as many perennial plants as possible. This way, we can plant our crop one time only, instead of caring for 2–3 crops of annual seedlings in the same bed per year. I find the “seedling getting established” phase to be the most time intensive part of gardening, as the tender young plants need to be protected from slugs, cats, birds, squirrels, etc. and watered gently and frequently. I love perennials and the amount they give back in return for our ongoing care is well worth it.
Perennial crops can live many years depending on the species. Common varieties in the San Francisco Bay Area include: tree collards, perennial kales, most berries, artichokes, scarlet runner beans, AND asparagus! Asparagus can live up to 20 years. They are usually planted from “crowns” or seedlings and must not be harvested for the first 2 years minimum. In the third year they can be lightly harvested for about 6 weeks and after that can produce for about the next 17 years from February to June. (in Berkeley) You get a lot of bang for your buck.
As for planting instructions, I follow Pam Pierce’s instructions in Golden Gate Gardening, involving placing crowns in trenches and adding enormous amounts of compost. Every fall I cut down all the ferny tops of the plants to the ground. Then I add compost and mulch with straw. Every February I wonder if they have died over the winter because there seems to be no sign of life…and then up pops the first asparagus of the season! I always get so excited.
I love asparagus, and so do my son and all of my friends, and yet there are times when I feel resentful of having to go out every single day for 5 months to pick the asparagus. I can feel bogged down and overwhelmed by it. I have to remember to give it away and I have to keep looking for new interesting ways of cooking it! Can you tell I am having one of those moments? I am swimming in asparagus!
Unless you want to be overwhelmed by oodles of asparagus, I recommend about a 20 square foot bed of Asparagus per family of 2–4. This can produce about 1 bunch (or jar) of asparagus a day. If you are an asparagus devotee or plan on freezing a lot of your crop to use in the summer and fall, then you could plant double that.
Finally, there are many choices about varieties. I grow Jersey Knight, UC 157, and Purple Passion. I have found UC 157 to come into production more quickly and vigorously than the other two. However, they are all thriving at Earthly Arts Farm in Berkeley and are pest free so far.