Episode-220- This Is What You Can Get From Hugelkultur – Asparagus

Permaculture Principle 7: Design from patterns to details

Just from what I can remember here is a list of food that immediately comes to mind from the spring, summer and fall harvests of 2013. Just a quick note that annual refers to plants that grow and die in one season and perennials live for many growing seasons.

  • Perennial Vegetables – asparagus, myouga (Japanese ginger)
  • Perennial Fruit – blueberry, elderberry, blackberry, raspberry, strawberry
  • Perennial Herbs – Thyme, rosemary, mint, lavender, oregano, sage
  • Perennial Flowers – Lazy Susan, bee balm
  • Annual Flowers- Sunflowers of all types, spider cleome, 4 o’clock, nasturtium, marigold
  • Annual Vegetables – Tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumber, daikon radish, cherry bell radish, eggplant
  • Annual Herbs – Parsley, chamomile, cilantro
  • Perennial Fruit that has yet to produce from the hugel beds – Kiwi, grapes, peach, cranberry

Particularly these are the crops harvested from the hugelkultur beds which now account for all of the gardens except for the blackberries, raspberries and the first asparagus bed. At ToDoLsitHome.com we are all about production and hugel beds seem to multiply the crops we produce by many factors. I have not yet measured our harvests in pounds or kilos and it would be good to compare harvests from regular gardens against hugel beds but we do our best to track the rewards of our work through pictures. Also, I don’t have any regular garden beds left except for where the original blackberry and raspberry are growing.

For now I would like to pick one plant and explain how I prepared for it to grow hugel style. I’ll start with one that I am most likely to harvest and eat next. It’s mid October 2013 as I write this which means my next harvest of substance besides greens will asparagus in mid April. Asparagus is a perennial plant that can produce for up to 20 years. That’s a serious investment with real rates of returns!

Prior to my first gardening experience in 2009 I had zero knowledge base for growing food. I used to think of asparagus as something exotic and never imagined it could be grown at home until I read about it in Mel Bartholomew’s All New Square Foot Gardening. I did my research during the 2009 growing season and by spring of 2010 I was preparing the first asparagus bed. I did not know about hugelkultur then and prepared the bed as recommended by the growing guide I got with the plants from NourseFarms.com of Whately, Massachusetts. I have no regrets about that first asparagus bed and here is a recent photo that depicts how well it is doing three years later. This first asparagus bed was not prepared hugel style but it has been very productive for a small 3 foot x 4 foot growing space.

I love Asparagus
First Asparagus bed that will produce for 20 years!

The asparagus from that first bed is so delicious that as I expanded the gardens I checked with the family and we all agreed that more asparagus would be welcome. My family loves asparagus and since the first bed worked out well I decided to make a bigger 2 foot x 8 foot garden for more asparagus. I decided to locate the new asparagus bed as the centerpiece of a large, south facing U-Shaped garden area right in the middle of blueberries, kiwi, grapes, elderberry and a peach tree. I wanted to be sure the garden was going to be built hugel style but not similar in shape or size to the big hugel bed. This new asparagus bed was going to face my neighbors and I wanted to make something that looked nice. This is important when building hugely beds. They all do not have to be big monstrosities because the makeup of a huge bed can be hidden from view.

New Asparagus hugel bed March 2012

I got the idea of a south facing U-shaped garden area from Gaia’s Garden which is a permaculture masterpiece written by Toby Hemenway. Putting the asparagus the center of this energy trapping zone was a good idea because it looks great and the asparagus seems to soak up its share of sun without disrupting the energy capture of the other plants growing in this area. In keeping with the permaculture principle of design from patterns found in nature to details the asparagus is just one component of a larger growing area which itself is one component of the total growing area at ToDoListHome.com.

Asparagus as the centerpiece of a U-Shaped garden area
Asparagus as the centerpiece of a U-Shaped garden area

To achieve the vision I began by mapping put the area and centering the outline for the asparagus bed along a swale on contour in the center of the previously prepared blueberry bush mounds. Each of those seven mounds plus the elderberry and peach tree was also prepared hugel style. Once the spot for the asparagus was outlined I grabbed my trusty shovel for more hugel bed prepping. I first dug out a big ditch for the bed about 8 inches deep. The clay was so thick and full of rocks I could not dig deeper with just my shovel. Once the area was cleared I placed two six foot logs from a freshly downed oak tree in the ditch. They were then covered with twigs, leaves, compost and top soil. To help the bed begin to form its own ecosystem I sowed a cover of winter rye and hairy vetch on top.

It was the third week of march when the bed was prepared and soon after sowing the rye and hairy vetch started to take off. They both grow easily with a little watering and help to begin to attract all kinda of living organisms above and below the soil surface of the bed. The animals then go to work tilling and fertilizing the soil with their excrement. The above ground insects such as honey bees, carpenter bees and other winged and crawling bugs also thrive amongst the rye and hairy vetch. The vetch is especially pretty as it climbs the rye and produces purple flowers. In this case I had only one month from the time m the bed was built until the asparagus roots arrived so giving it a head start with the cover crop versus planting them in a sterile bed was essential to establishing a thriving ecosystem in one small 16 square foot garden.

When the 25 purple asparagus plants arrived in April the bed was as prepared as best as possible. As you can see my bed worked out pretty well which proves that it is not necessary to only use old moldy logs and make the bed sit for six. months. Improvements in time came as a result of further break down of the bed components and increase in the larger insects to tiny microorganisms. Planting the asparagus was simple and I did not follow the detailed instructions which recommended digging 8 inch troughs and slowly filling them with soil as the plants grow past the soil level. I just planted them,covered them and left them on their own. I did water the plants from time to time but mostly left the watering up to natural rainfall which we usually get plenty of in northern Virginia in the spring. NourseFarms.com ships asparagus in bunches of 25 and of that number 19 went into this bed and the rest went in the older asparagus bed.

A year had to pass before the fruits of this labor produced any asparagus stalks and they must be left alone. It might not seem like a worthwhile endeavor but it was because as more years pass asparagus can be harvested for longer periods. As noted previously production from a good asparagus can go on for twenty years. Thus some long term planning is necessary especially when originally sitting a location for where to plant asparagus because it is not something that can be replaced after one or a few seasons. At the time of planting it is also a great idea to plant sparsely in an asparagus bed as a companion because it is beneficial to producing better tasting asparagus while it also deters harmful insects such as slugs and the asparagus beetle. I didn’t plant parsley with asparagus the first year because I did not know of its benefits but there is plenty of it now in both beds.

As I mentioned earlier the first growing season’s stalks must remain untouched. The stalks produced one year later must also be permitted to grow fully. The year after that stalks can be harvested for one week, the next year two weeks, the year after that one month and then succeeding years they can be harvested for the entire season. A good season can last up to eight weeks. It’s important for the health of the bed to not harvest every stalk. Each year unharvested asparagus must be left to grow to a big bushy fern in the fall. It will brown over the fall and winter and early in the spring it must be cut to ground level, mulched and then spread over the bed to retain nutrients and water essential to sprouting new stalks.

The 2014 season will allow my family to harvest the 2010 bed for one month and the 2012 bed will be harvested for one week. That’s more than enough to keep these faces smiling. Although more would be better. Get going with your own long term growing asparagus by visiting NourseFarms.com. I recommend the purple because not only does it look great it tastes even better!

Kids love asparagus!
Kids love asparagus!


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