Saturday, March 10, 2012

New Asparagus Beds

The new raised beds for asparagus and other vegetables are coming along well. The effort has been laborious because we had two or three days of constant rain after the topsoil was delivered. The soil was therefore wet and heavy. It has been hard work to move the soil from the delivery-pile in front of the house to the raised beds out back. We should have waited for things to dry out a little, but we are expecting the arrival of 30 asparagus crowns any day now, so we want the beds prepared and ready. And although our backs are aching, we are looking forward to 15-20 years of fresh, tender, tasty asparagus right in our own backyard for about three weeks every spring. We should also have extra to freeze so we can eat it later in the year.

The harvest won't be this spring, though. You can't cut the asparagus the first year, and only a little bit the second year, because this perennial plant needs time to establish itself. Then it will be strong enough to handle serious harvesting in the third and later years.

We garden organically. From everything I've read, asparagus beds need some serious preparation to thrive in our area. The crowns don't do well if they sit in wet, soggy soil for a long time. Our area is low-lying and prone to torrential rains in spring and fall. Friends have even told me that their treasured asparagus beds have rotted during a spell of bad weather in the past. This is one reason we went for raised beds, so that they will drain more easily to help keep the asparagus crowns healthy. The beds are deep because asparagus send their roots deep down into the soil.

The other reason for raised beds is that we thought they would be less work than tilling, but now we're not so sure that's true! We wish we'd had time to plan far enough in advance to set up these beds using the lasagna gardening technique, which we've used in the past with much success. It is much less work, much cheaper, very eco-friendly, and the results have been just as good if not better than with traditional methods. Over time we will use this method to start other beds, but with all the seeds I've saved and ordered, and with 30 asparagus crowns on the way, we had to do something quick, even if that meant more money spent and greater sweat-equity.

Asparagus are heavy feeders. Everything I've read about organic methods says to start with very healthy soil, i.e., one that is mixed with lots of compost and other organic matter. So this is what we are trying. Please note that we are not experts, so our ideas are not necessarily a recommendation since it will take a few years to see how the asparagus actually performs.

I described the construction of the frame for the beds in an earlier post. The frame is not required but keeps the gardens neater and more manageable. We used a wheelbarrow and trenching shovels to gradually move this pile of soil out back. We used trenching shovels due to the weight of the soil. They took more time but saved our backs.

Soil with moving equipment
You can also see my fiance, Don Burke, in the background with a lawnmower. He has been raking last fall's oak leaves out from under some bushes and is using our lawn mower to shred them up. We will mix this organic matter into the soil as an amendment. We also added some sphagnum moss, some composted chicken manure, and mushroom compost. The chicken manure is from a local farm.We've been composting it for a few months on our own property. The mushroom compost is all we could find this time of year at the local box stores. I'd like to add some vermicompost from my very own worm bins in my kitchen, but the vermicompost, to my eyes, has too many vegetable scraps in it and does not quite seem ready. I suspect we'd be better off waiting and adding it later as a top-dressing.

I've posted some pictures of the beds as they looked about halfway through our project as well as our leaf-shredding project.

Don raking out leaves to shred with the mower

Shredded leaves added to a bed

The beds in progress. The green thing in the back is a composter.

A cultivator, a very handy tool for mixing soil with compost
In case you are wondering why all the beds are fenced, we have three energetic and destructive, if much loved, dogs who would love to treat these raised beds as their personal digging boxes. In hindsight we would have been better off fencing in this section of the yard, and we may do so in the future.

Update on 3/17/12: Happy St. Patrick's Day! Don and I bought some fencing to go around the whole area for the beds to keep the dogs out. I paid a few dollars extra for the fencing-stakes that were made in the U.S.A. over the ones that were made in China. We plan to keep enough room to get a wheelbarrow or lawnmower through there. I added Scott's Organic Lawn Food fertilizer to the bed because it's what I had on hand. It's not a very balanced fertilizer and is quite high in nitrogen. After reading the label, I realized why the dogs are always trying to eat it. The top three ingredients are feather meal, meat meal, and bone meal. They probably think it's kibble!

We also bought cow manure to work into the beds and another kind of compost--the brand I forget-- that is half compost and half pine. It's organic. According to the bag, the mix helps the soil retain water and release it slowly to the plants. Our area is hot and drought-prone in the summer, so I thought it might be a useful amendment. We bought it at Home Depot if anyone is looking for it. I suspected its use will be more ecologically sound than that of peat moss, the use of which is controversial. We are about finished with the asparagus beds, so we are starting to move soil to the vegetable beds. We plan to put cow manure and the pine-water-retention-compost stuff in that bed, too.

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