The Dirt: The long view

I harvested my first asparagus recently. Their purple tips and green stalks rose out of the winter soil when all else in my garden was brown. They looked nothing like the shriveled, grocery-store spears that stand with their cut ends resting in icy water. Mine were almost a half-inch in diameter and growing so fast I thought of “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

The lonely asparagus: If this spear doesn’t land in the author’s next omelet, its purple-budded tip will unfold into the beginnings of a fern forest in the asparagus patch. Photo by Margaret Williams

There is, after all, something alien about asparagus. Last year, I dug a trench, tossed in a dash of organic fertilizer (mostly a little composted horse-and-mule manure we got from a friend), set the crowns in, and covered them up. Never having grown asparagus before—and only acquiring a taste for it in recent years—I didn’t know what to expect. The crowns were brown, dusty things with long, tentaclelike roots. They looked like something that might suddenly spring to life and wreak havoc.

Nevertheless, I watered and waited, reflecting that this gardening business takes a lot of faith. And though they were 2-year-old crowns, they produced naught but a miniforest of tall, feathery ferns that first season. I would weed around them, propping them up, while deriving more immediate gratification from other garden vegetables.

And earlier this spring, squatting beside the patch and brushing away a few leaves blown into the garden by winter winds, I noticed a lone, purple tip poking through. A few other tips lurked nearby, still white as they hadn’t yet found the sun. I wondered how they’d taste, and in the coming days, I marveled at how quickly some of the spears grew to 8 inches.

Of course, my first harvest yielded all of four fat spears—just enough to complement a fluffy veggie omelet for two. But ah, that asparagus was tender! It’s a wonder they even made it into the house and the chef’s hands.

So now I wait again, wondering whether more unearthly spears will appear and wishing I’d planted more crowns last year. Then again, we’ve had our five-acre plot up for sale for some months now; we didn’t anticipate enjoying even this batch, and we hope to be gone long before next year’s crop, which should be more bountiful.

Nonetheless, I’ll tend the patch lovingly this spring: It’s like passing on an inheritance to whoever comes after me. Perhaps that’s what Earth Day is about.

The global environmental celebration began in 1970, when I was a few months shy of 9 years old. Whether it was founded by Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin or by John McConnell, a peace activist living in San Francisco, I certainly don’t remember. I do recall that iconic first photo of the Earth that shows a blue-green ball floating in space: Taken by the Apollo 17 crew in 1972, it’s become a sort of symbol of Earth Day.

But for other details of that time, I must look to the history books. President Richard Nixon, they tell me, created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970—the same year McConnell and Nelson announced their respective Earth Day celebrations (McConnell’s on the vernal equinox, Nelson’s on April 22). The Clean Air Act was passed that year, too. At a time when all I cared about was baseball and swimming and fishing at my grandparents’ beach cabin, some older and wiser folks cared about the planet.

Now I’m older, and—while it’s debatable whether I’m any wiser, and I have my doubts about Nixon—I do tend to ponder how even the smallest actions can affect the Earth’s health. I grew this tiny asparagus patch organically, using no herbicides but hand-weeding, no pesticides but hand-picking (and squishing), no fertilizers but a hand tossing or two of long-composted manure and another all-natural supplement. Did these actions make the asparagus grow better or taste better? I don’t know. But I feel good knowing what is (and isn’t) in what I ate. And at least I know that nothing I did will ruin that patch of earth for the next person.

A well-pampered asparagus patch can yield edibles for 25 years, give or take. And in the many Earth Days to come, I hope whoever’s living there will marvel at those spring spears just as I do, and find them just as tender.

Send your garden news and ideas to Margaret Williams at, or leave a message at 251-1333, ext. 152.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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