Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Asparagus: Power Vegetable Supreme

Asparagus is a sweet, tender plant that is actually a part of the lily family. Cultivated for over 2,000 years, it gets its name from the ancient Greeks, who chose it to refer to the plant's tender shoots that are picked while they are young. The early Romans grew asparagus and distributed recipes for it, and Luis XIV was so in love with the vegetable that he had special greenhouses built so that he could enjoy it throughout the year. For this, asparagus has been pegged, the "food of kings."

Asparagus is considered one of the most well-balanced of vegetables, with a plethora of vitamins and minerals in addition to anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. The National Cancer Institute claims that asparagus is one of the most powerful vegetables for fighting cancer.  High in amino acids, asparagus helps to detoxify the body, making it an excellent food for nurturing the kidneys by stimulating urination and helping to prevent kidney stones. Asparagus's high beta-carotene content helps to strengthen blood vessels, making the plant beneficial for those suffering from problems with their capillaries, including symptoms of varicose veins. As a diuretic, asparagus helps reduce water retention in addition to reducing inflammation due to arthritis and rheumatic conditions, while also working as an anti-viral and antifungal agent.

Asparagus contains fiber, which acts as a natural laxative, protein, and carbohydrates in addition to vitamins vitamin C, which helps with collagen production for maintaining healthy cells and tissues. It also consists of vitamin A, K, iron, calcium, potassium, and is especially high in folate or folic acid, which helps produce RNA and DNA while also fortifying women during pregnancy. Asparagus also contains a substance called glutathione, which slows down cataract growth in the eyes, is a cancer fighter, and is said to fortify sperm in men.

Other attributes of this wonderful vegetable include helping to maintain a healthy gastrointestinal tract, fight high blood pressure, reduce symptoms of depression, fight chronic fatigue syndrome, lower cholesterol, minimize menstrual cramp pain, and assist in maintaining fertility as well as milk production in nursing mothers. It is even said that asparagus can be successfully used as an aphrodisiac.

Grow Your Own
Growing asparagus in your backyard is easy with the right kind of preparation and a lot of patience, as it takes up to three seasons for the plants to reach their proper maturity for harvesting. A perennial yielding tender spears every year, once their roots have matured, your asparagus plants will continue to grow from 15 to 25 years.

To grow asparagus at home, it is best to go to your local nursery and find the small one-year-old plants called "crowns," which is much easier than growing the plant from seed. Find a well-drained site on your property where the plants can get partial sunlight. Your soil should be slightly acidic, with the best pH being around 6.5. Asparagus can tolerate more alkaline soil if it has to, going well up to 9.0 pH.

Prepare for planting in the springtime by tilling the soil to get rid of all weeds, as they will compete with the plants for water and nutrients.  Loosen the soil from 12 to 15 inches deep and mix in a layer of compost placing it throughout the area in a two or three inch layer. Then you will need to create trenches or a single trench, depending on how much asparagus you wish to plant. If you are creating several trenches, place them approximately four feet apart with a width of 12 inches and a depth of 6 to 12 inches, or create a single trench with the same width and depth. Once you've prepared the ground, soak the crowns for a short while in tepid water before planting them.

Take your hoe and form a mound in the center of your trenches running lengthwise. Then place the crowns 12 to 15 inches apart on each mound, draping the roots over the sides. Gently cover the crowns with a mixture of one part compost and three parts topsoil, bury them up to two inches deep and water them sufficiently. After about a month when the shoots start to emerge, add more soil to your trenches.

Make sure you keep your asparagus beds well weeded, without disturbing the roots. Pull the weeds out by hand, adding more topsoil around the shoots to keep the trenches filled. Give the plants enough water by irrigating the area so that the soil is wet up to four feet deep. As your asparagus grows, place a 4 to 8 inch layer of mulch around the plants, consisting of leaves or hay. 

During the first year of growth, you won't be harvesting your plants, as they will need to mature. Just keep the dead foliage away when fall comes and keep the area covered with compost. When the second year comes around, you should continue to keep your asparagus beds well mulched, adding compost in the spring and early autumn months. This should be the regimen for the years to come, with the real harvesting of your plants happening in the third year when the spears start thickening. Cut them off just above the ground when they get to be around 6 to 8 inches tall. Make sure you don't pull them out of the ground, as this will disturb their root system. Let the weaker plants enjoy an extra season before harvesting them so that they have a chance to reach their full potential.

There are several types of asparagus, all of which are sweet and tender once they are prepared for eating. Most plants are green, but you can also get the purple or white variety, or you can plant a combination to experiment with the subtle differences in flavor. It is well worth the work and wait to have a garden full of these delicious, and healthful plants once they are finally ready to be prepared and eaten.

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