August 30, 2015

Giving Up On Asparagus

I planted our asparagus in spring of 2011. We got our first sampling the following spring, It was just a handful, just a taste of I hoped much asparagus to come. It takes several years to establish itself, so pickings must be gentle in the beginning. Then the wire grass set it. Spring of 2013 saw me transplanting my precious asparagus roots, in hopes of saving them from being choked out by that wire grass. Except for an occasional stalk or two, we've had no asparagus harvest since then. Until recently, the asparagus beds looked like this

The only consolation is that I've been able to sickle
mow this wire grass filled bed a couple of times for hay.

These were once permanent beds which have been overtaken by wire grass aka devil grass (Cynodon dactylon, an uncultivated bermuda). Long time readers will likely remember what I've done to battle this stuff: hand weeding, tilling, heavy mulch, cardboard, plastic solarization, landscape cloth with wood chip mulch, and more recently, pigs. The only thing I haven't tried is Round-up, which I understand is only a temporary solution, like all the others.

Wiregrass growing through a thick straw mulch in the green beans patch.

Last fall wire grass had taken over my permanent beds so densely that I couldn't plant a fall garden because I couldn't get to the soil. Talk about discouraged. That's when we sent in the pigs and goats and tilled once again. No, tilling is not the answer, but at least I can rake out enough of the wiregrass to plant something.

I have learned some things in my war against wire grass. One is, don't expect to win. Just aim to get a harvest. Another is that shade deters it. I'm not talking about shade from mulch; it just grows right on up through mulch. I'm talking about shade like this

Volunteer marigolds

or this

Volunteer 4 o'clocks

In the beds where I have a tall, dense growth of something like flowers or other plants, the wire grass is considerably (albeit temporarily) abated. It's definitely a sun lover.

The one drawback to my companion group planting is the different planting times and growing rates of the various companions in the group. Some things will be tall enough to mulch while others are barely breaking the ground. That delays mulching and gives unwanted weeds a foothold. The solution would seem to be to have everything about the same size when the bed is planted (or shortly thereafter) to get an earlier layer of mulch down. In Scott and Helen Nearing's The Good Life, I read how they kept their greenhouse so full of plants that anytime there was a vacant spot in the garden they had something at the ready to plant there. I can't help but think that a greenhouse is an answer for me.

Of course, a greenhouse has been on the master plan for a long time, but like everything else must wait until there is time and money to build. We've got an idea for a new location for one, so I should really update the master plan one of these days.

Even so, that won't help much with perennials like asparagus. So after getting only one side dish from it in four years, I'm calling it quits. I'm willing to work for our food, but when a thing takes time away from everything else, to me it isn't worth it. It's better to stick with the things that grow well in our garden, and asparagus isn't it.

58 comments:

Jayne Hill said...

Sorry you have lost your asparagus bed. We get occasional outbreaks of Cynodon dactylon (but here it is called Couch Grass) but I can get away with Roundup because it is on a much, much smaller scale than you are dealing with.

I guess for annually planted areas you could send the pigs in to clear the ground but there is no chance for a long-term perennial crop. Look forward to seeing how your greenhouse plans work out :-)

PioneerPreppy said...

We get something that looks like wire grass up here but it isn't as bad as the damnable Johnson Grass. Roundup only kills the plant showing and never gets the entire rhizome so it always comes back strong. Eventually it takes over almost everything but we managed to hold it at bay in the Asparagus and Strawberry beds for about five years. Usually we get so much Asparagus I am sick of it by the end of May. We might have lost our bed this year though due to the illness and rain won't know until Spring more than likely.

I have read that is you can take a cup of roundup and set the plant in it and after a few days it will deliver the roundup to entire colony. I never tried it though. The best way to get rid of all vegetation is to turn the area into a dry lot for pigs, goats, sheep whatever. They will eventually eat it down so much it uses up all the energy int he roots but it takes years.

Dawn McHugh said...

That is a shame about the asparagus, mine was planted up this year into a permanent bed of virgin soil it has been a battle with the weeds and weekly clearing, we have couch grass but I just keep weeding it to keep it under control, the asparagus went into a raised bed like everything else as we have very little top soil, I laid cardboard at the bottom soil fill on top then during the summer (what summer) after constantly weeding I mulched the whole bed in a thick layer of dried grass clippings my biggest weed problems are Dock and creeping buttercup.

Wendy said...

The never ending battle. We call it quack grass here. Such a pain. I have asparagus growing through it, but I only get a couple of spears a year because I can't find it in the grass. Then suddenly it appears all tall and fern like and goes to seed. I'm going to attempt a new patch and try keeping the crowns closer together in one spot, instead of spaced out the way I have them now. I don't know if it will work or not, but I figure at this point, what have I got to lose? Nothing but weeds growing in the corner anyway.

Leigh said...

We have found that tilling allows us to get a yearly harvest of annual veggies, because I can clear out enough wiregrass to produce a crop of something else. The pigs help in the same manner, but they are pretty haphazard in where they "till". Right now, I'm using then to help get rid of ground ivy in the doe pasture!. That's another problem for us, sigh

Leigh said...

Oh my, we have Johnson grass too, but only in clumps so far! I too, read that Roundup is only a temporary solution for the reason you mention. My neighbors apply it in their yards on a routine basis, but I definitely did not want to apply it anywhere, let alone on our food. So the battle continues.

Leigh said...

It seems grasses are everyone's worst gardening enemies. The other one I hate is deadly nightshade. Not only because it's poisonous, but because of the thorns. I have to wear Dan's heavy leather welding gloves to pull the stuff but part of the root always stays behind. That and ground ivy are pretty much taking over our back pasture.

Leigh said...

Wendy, I do hope you make it with your asparagus. We talked about transplanting our crowns, but I don't know where in the world we could try to grow it without a repeat performance of the wiregrass. I hope you win this time!

Erika Keller said...

So sorry you lost your asparagus bed. Our biggest problem weeds are japanese stilth grass and ground ivy. Hate them, hate them, hate them!

Farmer Barb said...

Here in PolyCulture Central, I don't know the names of my enemies. I do know one thing, darkness is nature's organic plant control. My asparagus is down a foot. My weeds would be up top. Asparagus shoots are bendy little fellas. This year, I put down VERY HEAVY landscaping cloth with a little slit where the asparagus would be coming up--maybe four inches by 10 feet. The landscaping cloth would not be enough to block the weeds alone so I piled 6 inches of wood chips on top. I have only had a weed or two that I couldn't clear with a quick pull. I have problems with curly dock and not-so-curly dock. It has a long tap root. The best way to kill is the slow and lazy way: block out the sun. It worked in my new veggie garden. I find that the landscaping cloth allows more water through. This is my 3rd year with these asparagus and they are doing well enough to compete with my Late August Weeding Fatigue. If you really want to do battle, take it slow and turn out the lights.

DFW said...

That is too bad Leigh. I know that bermuda grass awaits my attention in the near future & I'm not looking forward to that battle, at all.

anonymous said...

I hate grass. I hate it. I spend all summer trying to keep it out of the garden. And the grass here grows just fine in the shade. In between my corn rows was a thick carpet of grass I just couldn't get rid of. And nightshade scares me. I pull it and pull it and it keeps coming back. One of my little boys brought me some berries the other day. Thankfully he didn't eat any. My kids get so accustomed to eating from the yard, from the garden and blueberry bushes and fruit trees, they think everything is edible. We could do roundup but then I risk someone getting that on or in them. It's very frustrating.

Fiona said...

My father and I battled Couch Grass in one of our farm fields. Because it spreads mostly by Rhyzome after we cultivated the patches we would leave the bare roots and torn up grass one day in hot sun then actually hand rake up as much of it as we could. It was hard work but paid off by clearing 90% of the horrid stuff.
As to johnson grass...it is excellent forage grazed young or cut for hay. www.noble.org/ag/pasture/johnsongrass/ this site has a lot of good information. This link is to the johnsongrass page.

Rosalyn said...

That's sad, Leigh. But I think it's wise to determine what plants grow best on your own patch of land and invest your time into something that will bring success, rather than frustration. And it's a reason to visit other farmers or markets nearby, to enjoy a taste of what others have success in. Perhaps you could trade something that does well for you for something that does well for others. xo

Dani said...

I was going to try and grow asparagus. Perhaps not now...

Bettina said...

I have the same problem here, and ground elder to boot:( the more I pull it, the more it seems to grow! I tried to plant asparagus, because I cannot buy the white variety here and it is quite expensive. but after 10 years of trying and failing I've given up as well, it's just not worth the time and effort. in my view there's no point in trying to grow special plants, when they take so much time and effort for a meagre harvest. roundup though would be something I'd never use anywhere in my garden - as a matter of fact it looks ever more likely that over here in europe the stuff is going to be banned altogether, because the acting ingredient, glyphosate, is toxic and causes liver and kidney damage - and has been found in breast milk by now!

Becky said...

Oh, to have a greenhouse! On my wish list too!

Leigh said...

Grasses seem to be everybody's enemy! And ground ivy, I hate the stuff too. I did read that it can be used to make vegetable rennet for cheese making, however, I have yet to try that though.

Leigh said...

Blocking out the sun seems to be the only way to do it. Sounds like you had better luck with the landscape cloth than I did. Mine got bound to the ground when the wire grass grew right up through it!

Leigh said...

I've resigned myself that I can't win the war against bermuda grass, I can only hope to win the battle well enough to get a harvest. In the end, the asparagus just wasn't worth it.

Leigh said...

You sound just like me. I won't resort to Roundup either, for that reason and also because I refuse to support Monsanto by buying their over-priced product. The fact that it's only temporary anyway gives me some smug satisfaction in my decision.

Leigh said...

The trouble with that 10% is that it wastes no time in getting the upper hand once again. Ask me how I know!

I've read mixed reports on Johnson grass. It's on several poisonous for goats lists because its a cyanogenic, i.e capable of causing cyanide poisoning. My goats love the little bit of it they get, but it raises questions I'd like answered.

Two links to copy and paste:
http://www.ansci.cornell.edu/plants/goatlist.html
http://southcampus.colostate.edu/poisonous_plants/report/report_detail_1.cfm?ID=304

The article you provide the link for mentions dangers associated with drought, which is an occasional problem for us. Drought is also a cause if nitrate poisoning, another concern.

Sometimes it seems as though there is nothing safe to feed our critters.

Leigh said...

When we first got our place we made lists of what we wanted to grow. I finally figured out that there is a difference between that and what will grow well. If all we had to do was the garden, then we could spend the time and energy cultivating some of those things that need TLC. As it is, it makes more sense to simply eat what we can grow!

Leigh said...

Dani, you may work out a better set-up and solution. You won't know unless you try!

Leigh said...

Bettina, good to hear from you! I so agree with everything you're saying. It's wonderful news that Europe is moving toward banning Roundup! That will never happen here because Monsanto people have been appointed to our USDA and FDA.

Leigh said...

Here's hoping we both get our wishes soon!

Lynda said...

I have my asparagus planted in a raised cinder block bed...I put down 2 layers of commercial grade landscape cloth (the stuff is heavy duty)...built the bed 3 blocks high and then planted the asparagus...so far it has worked out very well (year 5). I don't have a grass problem...I have a ground squirrel problem.

Thistle Cove Farm said...

I've heard they are a delicate crop but haven't any experience.

Frank and Fern said...

We gave up on our asparagus last year and tilled right over it. There are still a few hardy plants that keep coming up, but now that area has been incorporated into the garden. We have bermuda, or wire grass, everywhere here. The pigs like it, but the people do not. You're right about not getting rid of it, just battling it. We also have crab grass which is much easier to pull, but just as invasive. So goes the gardening battle. As long as we can grow enough for us, the livestock, the birds, the insects and the varmints, I guess we'll call it a success.

I'm very interested in your ideas and plans for a greenhouse. It's always good to read another's research and glean more information and/or ideas that can be incorporated at home.

Fern

Lynda D said...

Death to wire grass !!!!!

I dont have the patience for it either. I wait till its in season and cheap and eat myself sick, then give myself a break to develop my cravings again. Works for me.

Renee Nefe said...

I've been meaning to give asparagus a try, but have never corresponded the desire with the right time of year for planting. I should check that out for my area and put it on the calendar.
So sorry that it didn't work out for you. having a greenhouse would be lovely. One day.

Mark said...

We are close to giving up on our asparagus for nearly the same reason. Here we have quack grass (Elymus repens) to battle regularly. This year it was everywhere simply because we were unable to invest the time to keep it controlled, but even in the good years we never got more than a small hand full of spears. One more year, I suppose....

Meredith said...

I'm so sorry to hear this! I planted a small bed of asparagus this spring and so far only 2 have produced ferns. :-(

Fiona said...

Thank you for the links. Keeping livestock healthy and well fed on natural grasses and hay we grow ourselves is a challenge. We have a patch of the Johnsongrass above the pond on the new farm. We are going to cut it when the new growth is still not that tall and see how that works. Do you think poultry could graze it?

Chris said...

I've never tried it, but I've read that if you plant comfrey near your asparagus, you can cut it down every year and feed your asparagus. The added benefit of comfrey is, its roots inhibit the path of wandering grasses, attempting to raid the bed. They cannot breach the comfrey roots if you plant close enough.

Maybe instead of giving up the whole asparagus thing, you can keep a metre squared bed (maybe even circular) and plant comfrey all the way around it, or anything in your garden with tougher roots. The only way to beat a rhizome grass is with a more competitive root.

Then maybe, if you can keep the grass out of your exclusion zone, and the asparagus does well enough, you can extend the bed another metre. A word of caution though. Comfrey can propagate and break containment lines, if you're shifting them. A small bit of root can multiply if broken.

I've had to battle to get my vegetable beds back recently, from sweet potatoes! Yes, an edible crop. It took over everything and I've done my best to remove it this year. I know it will return however, because the smallest amount of sweet potato can reproduce. There's no way I got it ALL out of the beds.

I'm just going to be staying on top of it, and pulling anything I see come up. I'm keeping the sweet potatoes, I'm just going to be relocating them to an area, they can do less damage.

Leigh said...

Fiona, we have the exact same goal. I cut my Johnson grass, dry it, and add it to the hay pile anyway. The goats love it and I figure that because I have enough variety I'm able to help offset problems. We tried a hybrid sudan grass for hay this year. That one site lists sudan grass with Johnson grass as having the same potential problems (they look and grow alike) but we had a fairly good rainfall, which seems to be key to avoid the nitrate and cyanide problems. I also bought Egyptian wheat seed for a patch in the garden and discovered it's actually not a wheat but an open pollinated sudan grass! So I'm saving the seed from that.

This summer we figured out that these are best for hay if cut fairly short (about knee height). If they get too tall the stems get tough and are slow to dry. They grow quickly and we figure we probably could have gotten three or four cuttings for hay. We'll try again next summer.

My observations about poultry is that they like the fine stuff, but I don't have Johnson grass growing in areas they're allowed so I don't know if they'd eat it or not. I hadn't even thought about that.

We're getting ready to plant the bear areas in our pastures with cool weather mixes. I've figured out that the deer and turkey mixes are a lot cheaper than the "pasture" mixes! We're putting in a wheat/oat/winter pea mix. Everybody loves that: goats, chickens, and pigs. Just don't know about the ducks yet!

Farmer Barb said...

Yes. The six inches of wood chips did the trick. I had weeds wound up in it with less.

Ed said...

Do you burn your asparagus beds in early spring? We burn ours in early spring and it helps to control the weeds immensely. It also seems to provide the asparagus with needed nutrients. The weeds are coming back by the time the asparagus shoots are ready to be picked but by the time the weeds get thick enough to smother the crop, they are heading out and the crop is over for the year.

Carolyn RH said...

We live in mid-TN and having lost 2 beds of asparagus and several beds of strawberries to bermuda over the last 20 years or so, we finally have a thriving bed of both (without chemicals). We have a large garden and the bermuda battle is ongoing. We have worked to establish what we call a "bermuda moat." An area where we don't plant - about 24" (wide enough for our tiller). Being able to till around the edge of the garden occasionally, keeps the ground soft enough to hand dig the bermuda that inevitably crosses the "moat" - a small (3-4" wide and 5-6" deep) trench that we dug on the grass (bermuda) edge of the garden.

A few years ago as a somewhat last resort after bermuda got into the garden AGAIN we moved our older chickens "out to pasture" in a section of the garden that had lots of bermuda. Leaving them there for a season, they took care of the bermuda and we moved them along to another garden section. So between the chickens and the "moat" arrangement we decided to try a permanent row of asparagus and one of strawberries once again. We do have to watch the "moat" area and pull the bermuda runners that are always trying to get back in but with a good 2 ft. area between the grass edge and the plantings which we keep mulched we are into our 3rd year of a very healthy and productive bed of asparagus and strawberries. It does take time to weed that moat area on a regular basis but not nearly as much as we used to spend weeding and fighting a loosing battle!

We have done basically the same thing with the raised bed area of my kitchen garden. Only here we actually took the bermuda sod out (to a depth of about 3 inches) and no that doesn't get all the deep roots but we dug down where the raised beds were to go to get the roots and then we put a deep pine straw mulch down between the raised beds. The first summer I dug out every spot where bermuda showed up in my kitchen garden area and really it wasn't nearly as bad as I had expected. Since then we use the "moat" system which is at least 2 ft. from the nearest raised bed to watch for the inevitable bermuda runners. Weed eating along the edge keeps most of it at bay.

Eventually we would like to have a narrow chicken run around the edge of the large garden and let the chickens keep the bermuda from entering. But alas fencing, time and money have to come together at the same time.

I have your book and have read your blog for awhile. I know you try to plan long term and thought you might eventually be able to find a way to put your chickens to use in your garden area with some kind of movable pen and maybe even try a "moat" as we have. Thank you for all the time you put into the great information you post.

Quinn said...

I'll put my money on your pigs! Can you maybe make small movable pens, to keep them working one area for a while, then shift them over? If I could have pigs now I'd have them tearing up my Lower West Side paddock. The goats have already done a fabulous job taking out the jungle that had been there for years, and if I could get things rooted up (and fertilized), I'd have a nice big garden on the only really flat spot on the property!
Oh well, maybe I'll broadcast some kind of browse mix down there this autumn and see what comes up for next year. Growing all my goat feed is an impossibility here, but anything I can do to cut down on the amount of hay I buy is a very useful effort.

Sandy said...

Leigh,

I'm sorry to hear about your asparagus bed. I've found if I take contractor garbage bags, and lay them down with brick on top to hold the plastic it kills off the grass and weeds making it easier to remove before planting again.

Harry Flashman said...

That's a shame. Asparagus is my favorite vegetable. I buy it in cans, and eat it with butter and garlic.

I didn't actually think small holdings farmers grew it any more, but at least I know now some are trying.

Leigh said...

I've thought about doing that with my strawberries, and you know what? Strawberries can be companions to asparagus! At this point I just didn't think it was worth the time and effort to go to any great lengths. If I do the strawberries though (a must) then I might as well add the asparagus!

Leigh said...

I think they would do fine if it wasn't for the Bermuda choking them out. That's the only problem we've had with it.

Leigh said...

Seems grasses are everyone's gardening archnemesis. I do cut and dry it to add to the goats' hay, but I'd rather we didn't have it at all!

I'll have to get a blog post for the greenhouse. I don't see it on our radar any time soon, but at least we have an idea of where to put it now.

Leigh said...

From your mouth to God's ear! as they say. :)

Leigh said...

One deterrent is that it takes several years to get well established, I read give it 3 years! Makes it tough when we have to keep moving the bed around, and one reason why I'm calling it quits!

Leigh said...

Mark, I've thought that if all I had to do was the garden then we could grow everything we wanted and grow it well. But there are just too many other things to do, aren't there? May your next year yield an abundant harvest!

Leigh said...

Oh, I hope it does well for you! It takes something like 3 years to become established, so hopefully your bed will do better every year.

Leigh said...

Chris, that's amazing that your sweet potatoes took over like that! I do have comfrey in several places around the homestead and have been moving it to live under my fruit trees and in the hedgerow. But I find our summers are too intense for it and much of it doesn't make it. I seem to lose about 50% of my comfrey every year to hot and dry. I haven't give up, though, and am still looking for that sweet spot where it will thrive!

Leigh said...

No, we haven't tried that. I know burning used to be done by the Native Americans to cause the prairies to flourish, and we do use our wood ash in the garden. Maybe a small controlled burn in just the one remaining bed would be worth an experiment.

Leigh said...

Carolyn, thank you so much for your kind words about my book and blog, and for taking the time to write out such an information packed comment.

You have actually just confirmed something Dan has been talking about. He hasn't called it a moat but he's got an area he's been keeping clear by tilling. Adding the chickens though, is a really good idea. You are so right about time and money, however! Still, I'm encouraged that you have a real solution and need to consider how we might incorporate something similar here. Thanks!

Leigh said...

Quinn, we're the same way, anything we can cut down to add to the hay is deemed useful!

Last year we let the pigs into the garden and they did a really good job in some areas. I have noticed that they don't do a lot of rooting in the areas (garden or pasture) where the Bermuda is really dominant, I suppose because of the root system(?)

Maybe you could borrow some pigs! They really do a great job of turning the soil, and fertilize while they're at it!

Leigh said...

Sounds like a good solution, Sandy. I do notice that the Bermuda that comes up through a heavy mulch is a little easier to pull. It's as though it's had to stretch it's neck to reach the sunlight. It's amazing, though, how quickly it can completely swallow up a bed with heavy mulch! Sadly faster than I have time to keep all my beds free of it.

Leigh said...

Harry, there's nothing better than fresh picked asparagus. As soon as it's picked, though, the sugars begin to convert to carbohydrates, which is why fresh picked is a spoiler! I have to agree that it's great that so many are trying to grow it. Seems those invasive grasses are the biggest problem.

Cozy Thyme Cottage said...

Hi! So very sorry to read about your asparagus and the wiregrass. That sounds like really horrible stuff! Nancy

Chris said...

Ah, so you have the same problem as me with comfrey. Plant it where the water pools after rain, and as close to tree canopy as you can. Though I'm sure you've probably figured that out, by the ones that survive in your hedgerow and fruit trees.

M.K. said...

THanks so much for this head's up about the wire grass, and for these tips in dealing with it. I'm so sorry about your asparagus!