Stalking Spring

Early Returns

by Kate Tvelia Athearn

Early Returns

Liana Jegers

Asparagus, the unsung hero of the vegetable garden, is rarely recognized for its versatility and nutritional qualities. Instead, it is best known as a vessel to wrap with prosciutto or drizzle with hollandaise. Sure, it doesn’t have the juicy pizzazz of a vine-ripened tomato or the sweet comfort of mashed winter squash but it is high in fiber, potassium, vitamin K and folic acid. It’s also a perennial. A healthy bed can produce up to 30 years.

But as much as I love asparagus, it took me a few years of farming to muster up the trench digging, manure scooping energy to install a proper bed. The secret to long-term success is meticulous preparation and planting, coupled with an enormous amount of patience. Asparagus plants need sever- al growing seasons without harvesting in order to build up the energy necessary to sustain decades of productivity.

As usual, it was my enterprising husband who took the initiative. He pointed out that most of our agricultural endeavors require a big up front investment of time and elbow grease, and we don’t see the return on that investment for months or even years.

Plus, there would be a plethora of oth- er farm chores to keep us busy while we waited.

So, he dug a trench and made sure to remove every last weed. He planted each crown in composted manure.

Over the first few weeks that they started to sprout, we gradually added more soil, until the trench was entirely filled in. Then the spears grew up and looked like actual asparagus, and I have to admit we did cheat a little and tried a few of the succulent shoots. But for the most part, we restrained ourselves, and let all the spears open into wide leafy fronds that could soak up the bright summer sunshine so the roots could develop, and then store energy over the long winter and send out shoots the following spring.

They grew, green and fluffy throughout the whole growing season, crimson berries appearing as we harvested the last of the kale.

Winter came and the leaves turned brown and died. We cut them back, knowing that the most important part of the plant was safe deep underground, insulated by rich soil and drifts of snow, plotting its return. In the meantime, we occupied ourselves with fun winter farm chores: de-icing barn latches and water tubs, shoveling and more shoveling, and hibernating next to the wood stove, ogling glossy images in seed catalogs.

Eventually, winter melted into mud season, when spring teases us with isolated mild days interspersed within long stretches of dreariness. Sure it’s warm enough to work outside, tilling and planting and checking for newborn lambs, but there’s nothing to harvest. Even spinach and snap peas don’t get to eating size around here until the tourists arrive. On the Island, early spring is all labor and no fruits.

But that year was different. In the barren brown landscape of the garden, emerald shoots suddenly emerged. They were tiny, oddly bumpy-headed stalks, but they were green. And edible.

The very sight of food in our garden at such a frustrating time of year inspired a palpable sense of relief and hope. Even though we couldn’t eat them that year, we knew that the hard work, the patience and persistence and blisters, would all pay off in years to come.

And now, every almost-spring, we are rewarded with an abundance of asparagus, with hearty quiches and vibrant stir-fries, each harvest sweeter and more plentiful than the year before.