Depending on who you ask, the best thing about perennials is the waiting. One can expect, within reason and with respect to the climate, that certain plants will bloom or sprout at a dependable time each year. When this time arrives, it seems, much attention is given to their arrival and then, before too long, these plants transition to their less heralded state. Think of daffodils or apple blossoms – a signal that winter is ending and warmer weather is coming. Think, too, of asparagus – perhaps the most anticipated crop of spring.
Between the long spells of rain, the sun revealed itself and cast light on the hilltop home of Lancaster Farmacy. A visit last fall found a late season crop of melons, cardoons, leeks, turnips and carrots were peaking. Recently, Elisabeth (Eli), who runs the farm along with her partner Casey (the Co-op’s General Manager) have found much joy in their first child, a boy, born during the off-season. And now, the summer season is just kicking off and the challenge is keeping up with the asparagus shoots popping up daily.
Cultivated by ancient civilizations, asparagus is a plant with much history. Egyptians first depicted its iconic form over 6000 years ago. Then, through the ages, asparagus migrated into North Africa, the Middle East, Europe and then, finally, to North America. The particular wonders of the plant, though, continue to excite people.
It takes roughly three years for an asparagus patch to become established enough to harvest commercially. Lancaster Farmacy has just over an acre of asparagus, arranged in about 10 rows, bisected by a paved driveway. These plants are around seven-years old and have already been producing for several weeks this year. Like all asparagus, their growth starts from a single, shared root base. Then, above the surface, the individual shoots grow so rapidly, they require two cuttings per day – in the morning and in the late afternoon.
To deal with potential weeds, Eli employs a “no-till” method where, in early spring, she cuts down the old growth then torches (burns) the soil. This action serves to both ‘wake up’ the asparagus from the winter by warming the soil and to produce carbon which feeds the plant. Then, during the next few months, several more passes with the torch will keep the weeds at bay.
Harvesting asparagus is a laborious endeavor. To help, Eli has recruited farmhands to keep up with the constant growth. Josh, who also works with the packing team at the Co-op’s warehouse, has been making quick work of plucking each shoot, sometimes getting up to 30 pounds per row. This can take upwards of three hours. Then, once finished, the asparagus must be prepared by trimming the ends, weighing and bunching – which can be another three hours.
Another farmhand, Angela, who has been with Farmacy since last year, said that as she harvests the asparagus, she “meditates into it,” which is another way to say that the simple task is countered with a multitude of ideas.
Or, perhaps, its wisdom that is carried down from the ancient cultures – knowing that an asparagus patch will grow for ten to twelve years and knowing that in that time its production will come and go with the seasons. And, for most of its life, it’s the waiting for those few weeks in spring that is most exhilarating.
article and photos by Chris Breimhurst