Friday May 4, 2012

I'm not sure you've been paying attention to this column of late. Therefore, grab paper and pencil; I'm giving you a pop quiz.

What do horseradish, rhubarb and asparagus have in common? Uh, you there in Lenox, keep your eyes on your own paper, please.

Yes, you there in West Stock bridge, that is correct. They are all perennial vegetable crops. That is, you plant them once and they'll come back year after year. Not only are they very reliable crops, but they are easy-care with few pest problems. About the only problem is cutworm and asparagus beetle on the asparagus.

This is a good time to plant horseradish, rhubarb and asparagus. Give them their own area at one end of the garden where they won't interfere with the growing of annual crops. Do not attempt any harvest this first year, since they'll need time to get established. Once they get going, the only care they'll need is weeding and an annual application of compost and fertilizer, one with an approximate analysis of 10-10-10. Apply fertilizer after the last harvest of these crops.

Horseradish is harvested early in spring, just before or as new growth begins, by digging up some roots. The roots may also be dug in late fall after the leafy tops have died back.

Asparagus harvest is under way now in established beds. Harvest is done by snapping off the spears when they are about 7- to 10-inches tall. By snapping off the spear, the tough part of the stem is left behind. To allow for full development of its roots, asparagus planted this year shouldn't be harvested for two full growing seasons. That means first harvest will be in spring of 2014.

Rhubarb harvest is also under way now. It is harvested by pulling off the leaf stalks, starting with the outermost stalks. Cut off and discard (on the compost pile) the leaf blade of each stalk, since it contains toxic levels of oxalic acid. Don't harvest any stalks from newly planted rhubarb. Next year, harvest over a two-week period; the year after, limit harvest to a four-week period; thereafter, harvest for six to eight weeks or until the new petioles become small. Excess rhubarb can be easily frozen by cutting washed and dried leaf stalks into one-inch pieces and tossing the pieces into freezer bags.

If you passed the quiz, you can now move on to these homework assignments:

  • Plant a little extra in the vegetable garden this year. Plan to donate this "extra" harvest to the local food pantry. Last year, many food pantries had difficulty keeping up with demand. With the combination of a slowly recovering economy and surging food prices, it's likely the demand will remain high again this year.
  • Start vines crops, such as squash, cucumbers and melons, indoors. For ease of transplanting sow seed in individual peat pots.
  • Begin planning this year's container gardens. Gather ideas by perusing gardening magazines (e.g. Garden Gate and Fine Gardening) or books at the library. Many garden centers already have displays of containers with colorful plants to help with the planning. Buy container garden plants early since the choicest plants disappear fast.
  • Shop now for creeping phlox. These plants are coming into bloom and that usually prompts a stampede to the nearest garden center.
  • Star nasturtium from seed. I can't think of a more versatile plant. The bush types are great for container gardens or in a cottage garden, while trailing types can be used for hanging baskets; and the leaves and flowers are edible. Seeds germinate in about 10 days and flowering begins around 45 days after seeding and continues through the growing season. What more can you ask of a plant? Oh, it smells good, too.