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Friday, April 23, 2004 07:24 pm

Asparagus success

art993

Warm spring temperatures mean different things to gardeners-- lawnmowing, brightly colored spring flowers, fresh produce. My family, for instance, can't wait for the first garden-fresh lettuce-and-spinach salad -- and asparagus from Grandma's garden.

One of the first vegetables harvested in the spring, asparagus emerges when the soil temperature reaches 50°F. This hardy perennial is generally available from late April through early June.

Asparagus spears are harvested when they are five to nine inches tall and have tight, compact tips. Snap the spears at ground level (this is the preferred method) or cut below the soil's surface with a knife. Spears larger than a half inch in diameter contain more soluble fiber and are preferred to thinner spears. Although thin and thick asparagus spears differ little with regard to taste, thinner spears are tougher.

Fresh is best: If you don't have room to grow asparagus in your garden, buy from a local producer. Select only fresh, firm, straight, fat spears. Immediately refrigerate your asparagus after harvest or purchase. Asparagus loses moisture and flavor very quickly and will develop woody tissue if left at room temperature. Keep the spears moist by wrapping the base ends in a damp paper towel and then placing the spears in a plastic bag or standing them up in water. For best quality and peak flavor, asparagus should be eaten within two to three days of harvest.

Asparagus may be eaten raw, steamed, boiled, grilled, roasted, or stir-fried. It also makes a tasty soup, salad, quiche, or appetizer. Prepare asparagus by washing the spears in cool water to remove dirt particles. Green asparagus does not need to be peeled, whereas white asparagus does. Remove the tough, woody base by cutting off an inch or two or by snapping the spears near the base. Spears will naturally break where the tender part meets the tough end.

Spears may be cooked whole or cut into one-inch pieces; be sure to leave the tips whole. Flavor asparagus with olive oil, lemon juice, chives, marjoram, parsley, thyme, butter, or salt and pepper. Asparagus requires only a short time to cook; steam it for five to 10 minutes. The spears should be tender and crisp and still bright green. Be careful not to overcook asparagus; it will become mushy and lose its flavor.

For more cooking and growing tips for asparagus, visit the University of Illinois Extension's "Watch Your Garden Grow" Web site, www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/veggies/index.html.


Easter lilies in the summer

Want to keep enjoying the beautiful, large, fragrant trumpet-shaped white flowers of Easter lilies? Here are some tips for extending the blooming period:

• Keep the plant cool (60 to 65°F) during the day and slightly cooler at night.

• Keep your lily near a window in bright but indirect light.

• Keep the soil moist, and be sure to remove plastic pot sleeves.

After the last bloom has been cut away and you're ready to plant the lily, find a sunny, well-drained garden spot. Place the bulb three inches below ground level and fertilize it. As the plant dies back, cut the stems to the soil surface. New growth will soon emerge.

Because Easter lilies are hardy to zone 6, be sure to provide winter protection by covering the ground with a generous layer of organic mulch in the fall. Remove the mulch in the spring. You will need to wait until the next June or July to enjoy the blooms again.

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