Hurray! They're here! Asparagus roots and rhubarb crowns are arriving in local garden stores, a sure sign that spring is on its way.
February and March are the ideal months in which to plant these two perennial vegetables. Some people might find it a drawback that neither of them should be harvested during their first year, but I call it an exercise in gardener patience.
Let's talk about asparagus first. When you buy the roots, choose a variety that has "Jersey" in its name, as these will be mostly male plants. The old standby "Martha Washington" varieties are largely female and use a lot of energy producing seeds, so they do not produce edible stalks nearly as well.
Asparagus does not like to have wet feet in winter, so strongly consider a raised bed or a berm for it. Dig a trench no deeper than 5 or 6 inches and a foot wide. In the bottom of the trench, put compost or well-rotted manure mixed with some native soil. Then add superphosphate or triple superphosphate to the trench. Do not omit this step, as it greatly affects future production.
Space the crowns 12 to 18 inches apart in the trench, spreading out the roots (the fertilizer will not burn the roots), and fill the trench with more of the compost/soil mixture. When you are finished, the crowns should be 2 inches below the surface of the soil. It used to be recommended that the trench be filled in gradually, but research has shown that this actually reduces production.
Although it is tempting, do not harvest any asparagus for the first year or two, as it needs to grow a strong root system so it will continue to produce for 15 to 20 years. Just enjoy the lovely fern-like fronds for now.
Rhubarb, or pie plant, as my Swedish grandmother used to call it, makes delicious pies, jam and sauces. Rhubarb needs a winter chill of at least 40 degrees in order to stimulate spring growth. It, too, will produce for many years.
Older varieties have green leafstalks, but the newer varieties, such as Valentine, Canada Red and Crimson Red, are redder and a bit sweeter. The plant itself is quite attractive, so you might want to consider making it a part of your perennial bed.
Like most garden plants, rhubarb likes fertile, well-drained soil. In the Rogue Valley, it should be protected from the hot afternoon sun to avoid leaf sunburn.
Loosen the soil about a foot deep and incorporate plenty of compost or well-rotted manure. Plant the crown so it's covered with about an inch of soil. Keep it moist, but not wet.
Like asparagus, rhubarb should not be harvested during the first year so it can establish a strong root system. Rhubarb loves manure, so top-dress it during the summer, or add some 5-10-10 fertilizer to give it a good start. If the stalks are skinny, it usually needs to be fertilized.
When it is time to harvest next year, never pull more than one-third of the stalks at a time so there are enough leaves to maintain a healthy crown. Remove flower stalks as they appear, as they sap energy from the plant.
This low-maintenance plant will be enjoyed for many years, and I suspect that you, too, will look forward to delicious strawberry rhubarb jam and a warm slice of rhubarb pie.
Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.