Stewamed asparagus with brown butter sauce. (Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times/MCT) - MCT

Spears of Spring

It's the gift that keeps on giving.

Although young asparagus can test gardeners' patience, when left to mature for a couple of years, the perennial plant will produce for up to two decades.

Needing little care once established in a home garden, orchard or drainage ditch, asparagus is one of the sure signs of spring's arrival, as indispensable as tulips and daffodils. Indeed, slender and delicately hued asparagus, gathered in bouquets from the garden, local farms or roadsides, rivals spring flowers for beauty. Also attractive are asparagus' fernlike fronds that mark the end of its run, usually in June.

Rogue Valley orchards long have been sources of "wild" asparagus. In 2006, the certified Biodynamic Cowhorn Vineyard and Garden planted asparagus to complement wine grapes. Cowhorn will harvest about 6,000 pounds of asparagus from two acres for sale to Ashland and Medford food co-ops, Ashland's Shop'n Kart and several local restaurants, says Cowhorn co-owner Barbara Steele. Visitors to the Applegate farm also can buy it on site for $5 per pound between April and June, she adds.

Price is determined not only by growing conditions and the Steeles' holistic way of caring for their farm. Their asparagus' lilac color makes it a novelty compared with common green counterparts in grocery stores. The home garden also is an ideal spot to grow varieties like "purple passion."

February and March are the best months to plant asparagus, purchased as a crown of roots. Gardening experts recommend varieties with "Jersey" in the name, which indicates mostly male plants. Old "Martha Washington" varieties are largely female, meaning they expend a lot of energy producing seeds instead of edible stalks.

Asparagus needs rich but well-drained soil, easily achieved in raised beds or berms. To plant asparagus, dig a trench no deeper than 5 or 6 inches and a foot wide and fill with a mixture of compost or well-rotted manure and native soil, according to Jackson County Master Gardeners. Top with superphosphate or triple superphosphate to boost future production.

Arrange asparagus crowns 12 to 18 inches apart in the trench, spreading out the roots, and fill with more compost/soil mixture until crowns are 2 inches below the surface, Master Gardeners advise. Then sit back and wait for at least a year — perhaps two — which lets asparagus grow a strong root system that will yield tasty stalks for 15 to 20 years.

Asparagus crowns produce spears of all sizes, the largest coming from the plant's healthiest part, usually near the center. While pencil-thin asparagus are nice for quick sautes, thick ones lend themselves to roasting, which imparts a silky texture under caramelized skin.

This distinctively flavored vegetable is versatile enough to incorporate in salads, soups, stir-fries, pastas, risottos, quiches and other egg dishes. But the simplest preparations show asparagus to its best advantage.

One of my favorites, particularly with thick asparagus, is simply steamed or seared and topped with a poached egg. Meaty spears of this size are practically a meal unto themselves.

Unlike thin specimens, thick asparagus should be trimmed and peeled. If freshly harvested from the garden or a local farm, only the very ends are tough. Cut away just 1 1/2 to 2 inches instead of snapping asparagus off where it feels tender. Then peel, starting from just below the spear's tip with very light pressure and gradually increasing pressure toward the base, where the toughest fibers are.

Steaming or boiling thick asparagus takes about seven or eight minutes. To confirm doneness, poke a spear with a paring knife, which should slide in easily. Lift a spear, and it should sag just slightly. Accent with freshly squeezed lemon juice, a pat of butter or, for a bit more refinement, this simple brown-butter sauce.

Mail Tribune Food Editor Sarah Lemon can be reached at 541-776-4487 or email slemon@mailtribune.com. For more tips, recipes and local food news, read her blog at mailtribune.com/wholedish, see www.facebook.com/thewholedish or follow @thewholedish on Twitter.

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