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Weeds in the asparagus patch.

We have a small organic produce business in western Iowa. The acreage we acquired in 2005 provided the space we needed to add asparagus to our crop mix, an addition our customers and we had long wanted. As is usually the case with my gardening activities, the new planting of asparagus was accompanied by mistakes that I've been adjusting to ever since. Perhaps readers will learn from the mistakes and the adjustments.

I have been an impatient person for every one of my 67 years, and that led to the first mistake. Soon after acquiring the property, we had a good portion of the future garden area cleared of brush and unsalvageable buildings. It all looked so clean and benign after that! That winter I ordered 500 asparagus roots (Mary Washington) and designated a 50foot by 50-foot area for planting them in the spring. A typical recommendation is to plant rows of asparagus five feet apart, so my plan was to have 10, 50-foot rows, five feet apart. I was also aware that for a couple years prior to planting a crop like asparagus, the area should be planted with annual crops or cover crops to eliminate perennial weeds. But I was anxious to get the patch established and after all, I imagined from the comfort of my armchair that winter, I was certainly going to be able to handle a few weeds.

Come spring, I prepared the trenches, planted the roots and then, along with the emerging asparagus, came the brome grass, Canada thistle, and a million varieties of annual weeds. Then I compounded the mistake by doing it again the next year, as I expanded the asparagus planting to 30, 50-foot rows. It's not easy being me.

The weed problem actually had two sources. My failure to rid the area of perennial weeds was one, but at least in my opinion, the five-foot spacing between the rows was another. Once the spring harvest is over, asparagus ferns quickly grow and canopy the paths between the rows, making it difficult to see and remove even the annual weeds, some of which get pretty big in a well-fertilized organic asparagus patch. At the end of this article, I'll describe my recent asparagus patch expansion that takes both these problems into account.

These early plantings had decent yields, but the annual and perennial weeds clearly took their toll, and they even made the picking itself increasingly difficult toward the end of the spring harvest. It was obvious that I was never going to get these weeds eliminated or even controlled, so my efforts turned to managing them.

My annual asparagus bed maintenance and weed management regime was pretty simple for the first few years. I left the ferns (and weeds) in place over the winter in order to catch the snow. The sometimes very deep drifts provide some insulation and moisture to the planting. Depending on weather conditions, sometime between late January and mid March, I would burn the dead weeds and ferns and then mow what had not burned. Soon after that, I would spread fertilizer directly over the rows (currently I use a commercial product made from composted poultry manure). Then, when the ground was ready, but well before the spears emerged, I tilled the entire area, even the rows of asparagus, with the tiller set very shallow. I would till again between the rows about half way through the picking season and then again after the harvest is finished and before the ferns canopy over the paths. After the harvest, I would again spread fertilizer directly over the rows of asparagus.

For the first few years, that was the extent of my weed management and bed maintenance effort, and it is still part of what I do each year in those early plantings. Notice in this regime that while the paths between the rows are tilled a couple times during the season, the weeds in the asparagus rows grow unabated. By halfway through the harvest, it becomes difficult and frustrating to harvest, with emerging spears often hidden by weeds until they are too large to sell. Furthermore, with such an unabated start, by the time the harvest is over and the spears are allowed to fern out, the weeds in the rows are well established and often become tall enough to shade the ferns, diminishing the sunlight they need to rejuvenate the roots below. To somewhat combat this, my latest addition to the weed management regime in these early plantings involves mowing.

It works as follows. My harvest usually begins in early to mid April here in zone 5. Sometime in May, when the weeds in the asparagus rows make harvest difficult, I choose the most weed bound one-third of the planting and pick all spears, even those only a couple inches tall, and then mow that entire third, with the mower set at a four-inch height. I usually till between the rows at that time and the result is a pleasingly clean looking bed (I know, the weeds are still lurking there, but it looks and feels so much better). Within three or four days, I'm picking again from that section with no obstruction from weeds. I then do the same thing in another one-third of the planting, and a few days later in the final third. Staggering the mowing in this way allows the harvest and sales to continue uninterrupted. By the time the harvest nears completion, usually sometime in June, the weeds in the rows are again a problem. I make a final thorough picking, mow the entire planting, spread the fertilizer and till the paths. The spears that emerge after that are left to fern out and they will have a big jump on the mowed weeds. Instead of the weeds shading the ferns, the ferns help shade the weeds. Since adding mowing to my weed management regime, I've noticed much healthier ferns during the summer and better yields the next year.

Asparagus is a good seller in my business, but the weed problem had kept me from expanding the planting. Mowing the growing weeds made a significant, positive difference, but I wanted a better "solution" before expanding further. The main problem with weed management after harvest is the difficulty getting at the weeds as the ferns canopy over the paths. It seems like wading through the underbrush in a jungle, and I seldom attempt it.

I am experimenting with a different planting configuration that looks promising. I have planted a single, 200-foot row of asparagus down the center of a 15-foot wide strip. For two years prior to planting the asparagus, I planted annual vegetables and cover crops in the 15-foot by 200-foot strip. That seems to have eliminated the perennial weeds. After planting the asparagus (spring 2012), I planted an annual crop, potatoes, on either side of the asparagus, leaving two feet of open ground on each side between the potatoes and the asparagus. That made it very easy to rid the asparagus planting of every annual weed. I weeded the asparagus row three or four times that summer and each time it took about five minutes with a stirrup hoe. We'll see if it remains that easy as the planting matures, but I am hopeful that without the canopy formed by adjacent rows of ferns, the weeds will be easy to see and get to.

I think I would employ some version of this planting strategy, even for a small plot intended just for personal use. Since it is a perennial, many instructions suggest growing asparagus out of the way of the annual vegetable garden. Perhaps this is not always best. A two-or three-foot wide bed, set apart from the main garden, is easily neglected and invaded by neighboring grass and weeds, especially if things are kept organic. I suggest at least considering integrating a single row of asparagus, or multiple rows separated by many feet, into the main vegetable garden where it is seen often and the area around the rows can be quickly weeded several times a year. Such a planting regime can also serve as a way of dividing up a garden space, making record keeping and planning easier.

I hope my mistakes and adjustments to them are useful to some readers. Anyone with questions is welcome to send them to me at


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Author:Jahn, Bill
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2013
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