Growing asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) is one thing you can do in the garden to teach your children patience. Unlike other veggies, asparagus shoots shouldn't be eaten in the first year. The second and third years involve only a limited harvest of that season's shoots. While watching all this sprouted asparagus go uneaten might seem maddening to your family, take heart. It's all in the service of developing a healthy asparagus patch that will provide bountiful harvests for many years.
The traditional way to plant asparagus crowns is to set them at the bottom of a trench dug to the depth of 6 to 8 inches. Cover them with only 1 to 2 inches of soil. Within a few weeks, the crowns begin to sprout. Harvesting any of these first-year shoots is detrimental to future crops. The sprouts turn into foliage that collects nutrients needed for strong root systems. Instead of eating the shoots, continue to add soil to the trench to bury the sprouted crowns as they grow, adding about 2 inches of soil every three weeks. By the end of the growing season, the trench should be filled. When working with soil, you and your children should wear gloves to avoid soil-born pathogens.
The year after you plant, it's best to cut last year's foliage in early spring so that insect eggs or disease spores are removed. New sprouts emerge in the spring, but it's still best to avoid harvesting these shoots. As with the first year, they are needed to ensure the long lives of the plants. You may opt to harvest a few of the thickest sprouted shoots, but leave the majority behind -- especially any shoots that are thinner than your finger.
The third growing season represents the first real harvest for the asparagus grower. Many more of the sprouted shoots appear from each asparagus crown, and many more of them are thick enough to harvest. It's important for future crops that you limit the harvest to no more than four weeks.
Year Four and Beyond
In the fourth summer, asparagus reaches the stage that allows you to pick to your heart's content. Begin picking shoots when they reach finger size and continue for about eight weeks. After the weather turns hot, asparagus season is over because the sprouted shoots emerging from each crown are too thin and of poor quality for good eating. In subsequent years, you'll continue to get about eight weeks of full-sized asparagus spears.