It used to be nobody cared when they bit into a tasty spear of asparagus whether it was a she or a he. In fact, most people didn’t even know there was a difference. Gardeners happily planted popular open-pollinating varieties, such as “Martha Washington” and “Mary Washington,” and were pleased with the results three years later when they started harvesting. But now, having stepped out of the Garden of Eden, gardeners have become aware that mixing the two sexes, which is what Washington varieties were, is not the best way to produce the most abundant asparagus crop.
And sorry ladies, but in this case, the male hybrid of the species really does have the edge, according to researchers at Rutgers University who started a program in the 1980s to improve the performance of asparagus using a more productive male hybrid plant. The gentlemen of the species actually produce more and slenderer spears, while the ladies tend to be (how shall we put it) more on the pleasingly plump side.
The female plants waste a lot of time and use a lot of energy producing seed, which can be a hassle for gardeners when tiny sprouts begin shooting up like weeds all around the asparagus patch. It seems the guys produce a yield of spears that is 20 to 30 percent higher than the females. Many garden experts are now recommending Jersey varieties such as “Jersey Supreme,” “Jersey Giant,” and “Jersey Knight”—all products of the Rutgers University research that was done in, where else, New Jersey.
Note, however, that these Jersey male hybrids aren’t really all male after all. They are 93 percent male and 7 percent female.
As for the nutritive value of male vs. female asparagus, researchers in China have found male spears are higher in amino acid, carotenoid, iron, and zinc, while the female spears have higher fiber content, suggesting the males are of higher quality. The females, however, have higher soluble sugar, calcium, and fat content than the males.
- Asparagus dormant corms can be planted a month before the last frost date.
- Asparagus plants prefer sandy loam, but will grow in heavier soils as long as they have good drainage.
- To plant, dig a trench 18 inches wide and deep. Add a few inches of rich compost and space roots fanning outward about 18 inches apart. Cover with a few inches of soil and wait for the plants to sprout, then slowly fill the trench with soil as the sprouts grow, never covering the tips, until the trench is filled to the top.
- If you live in a warm climate such as California, plant a California variety such as “Atlas,” “Apollo,” or “Grande.” These are crosses between New Jersey male plants and a nonmale California hybrid, designed to produce taller spears that won’t fern out prematurely under high air temperatures.
- Here’s the hard part: Don’t cut any spears until the third year. After that you will get more abundant spears each year for 20 years or more if you keep your patch weeded and add fertilizer to the bed every spring.