Highland Park asparagus
big Burrito big Chef Bill Fuller
Three years ago, my family and I started working a garden plot in the Stanton Avenue Community Gardens. We went in on it with another family, imagining shared work and shared rewards. We’d till the soil in the spring, weed with the kids on long summer evenings, pick and preserve the bounty in the fall. We’d fertilize with compost and yard waste, enriching the plot each year until we reached a deep and loamy soil, decadent with nutrients. Gentle moments of death and renewal would present their stories, teachable moments enriching our lives.
The garbage and vines of the previous tenants’ neglect needed to be cleared, the fences mended, groundhogs dispatched, and water barrels acquired. We tore into the project, building a bin to compost the larger, woodier plant material over time. I scoured the Strip, seeking out discarded barrels (the blue plastic kind) to collect rain water. We went after it, buying seeds and compost and blueberry bushes. We even brought a couple of old lawn chairs down to the plot.
Our first week’s enthusiasm led to tension with a neighbor, an elderly Italian gentleman, when, in an effort to patch the west fence that has collapsed under the weight of his leaning water barrel, we moved most of his water into our barrels so we could lift his erect. We fixed the fence and forgot about the water. This, of course, was accomplished without his knowledge or permission.
His discovery a few days later that he’d lost his carefully collected winter water led to harsh words and suspicious accusations. We apologized profusely and avoided him as much as we could. I remember driving to the garden, parking, then pulling away when I realized he was working his plot. However, as we brought the abandoned garden into productivity, picked the glass out of the soil, and proved ourselves good garden citizens, he forgave us.
Last spring he shared with me some of his fava bean seeds.
“Come from Italy, these are the last ones. Plant three in a small triangle. Like this. Not too deep, but put them in. No, you don’t water. Let the rain do it. It will come. Watch. Water when there isn’t rain, when the seeds aren’t ready, and they will rot. You see.“
I imagined, as I worked in our plot next to his, not really speaking that he probably didn’t know the water barrel had gradually tilted into our fence, season after season, and that he probably never noticed that it had collapsed it. His acute awareness of the water level, a precious resource in a garden plot far from any spigot, did not include the disposition of the angle of incline of the barrel. He knew that he had water, then didn’t have water, and it was our fault. I understand now, after a dry year two years ago, that the water hoard is precious.
The fava beans were tasty. I didn’t get as many as I’d have liked, but who ever does from fava beans? I ate most of the crop myself.
Crucial to our concept of the garden was the inclusion of an asparagus patch. Freshly picked asparagus bears little resemblance to the woody grocery store stalks. Tender, sweet, juicy, mild, it barely needs to be cooked. Furthermore, the appearance of asparagus, highly dependent upon soil temperature, signals the full arrival of springtime. Rarely does it snow on an asparagus field in full production.
We bought 70 crowns.
To plant an asparagus crown properly, a hole needs to be dug deep and wide enough to allow for well-conditioned soil below and all around. We dug a trench a foot deep, five feet wide, and about thirty feet long. We mixed sand, peat, and manure into the soil, made a sweet bed, placed the crowns in 20 or so rows of three, topped with amended soil, and marked it off.
At this point, the instructions say “Now wait three years.” We might be able to get a few spears from each crown on year 2, but in order to establish the asparagus we really should wait for three years.
This is year three. And it is the first full week of warm weather. This is our first full week of asparagus.
The best way to eat these babies is to pick them right before cooking, wash and dry them, and gently warm them to barely soft in whole butter, seasoning gently with salt and pepper. My kids, fairly picky about vegetables to begin with, have become rabid fans of the fresh, local asparagus. When I try to sneak store-bought stalks onto their plates, they know and call me out.
“Dad, did you just pick these?”
“Why? Um, yes, I mean.”
“No you didn’t. They aren’t very good. Can you get the good asparagus, the ones that we pick? We like those better.”
My Italian gardening neighbor expressed concern about the asparagus patch. They raised asparagus in his home region. He knew asparagus. He was concerned.
“The soil here is not so good, you might have a hard time.”
“You think? I know a number of farmers in the area that grow it. They seem to do okay’
“Mebbe. But here, the soil is difficult. Too much work to get it right. You see next year. Mebbe it grows. Mebbe it doesn’t.
“I’ll let you know. Thank you!”
Sometime last year, his plot stopped being tended. We were not sure what happened, if he gave up, became ill, or worse. And this year, year three, we have yet to see him. It looks like there must be a different tenant, or maybe a son or niece working his plot. I would like to reach over the fence with two dirty hands full of variously sized freshly picked, local Highland Park asparagus.
I think he would enjoy it. I will toast him with a spear.
Tarragon Chicken Breast with wild rice and asparagus from my garden