Asparagus plants can be classified as male, female or male hybrid plants. Male plants generally produce more spears than female plants — sometimes three times more spears than female plants — and they don’t produce seed that can spread throughout the garden. There are also rust- and fusarium-resistant varieties, rust and fusarium rot being two diseases common to asparagus.
Some varieties of asparagus have been used reliably for decades. In fact, certain varieties have been planted and harvested for nearly a century. But, many of the new varieties are equally delicious, more productive and even more disease-resistant. While the varieties below are perhaps the easiest to find, your local university extension, nursery or agricultural extension officer will be able to tell you what grows best in your area.
Basic wild asparagus – This can be started from seed and planted into a bed after one year of nursing it in a growing area for transplanting. While this variety may be tasty, it has little, if any, disease resistance. Additionally, success with wild asparagus seedlings is often mixed.
Mary and Martha Washington – These very old stand-by dioecious varieties (female or male) are rust-resistant. While these are out-produced by the modern male hybrids varieties, they are still tasty and reliable plants. They can, however, seed out to other areas in the garden.
Jersey Giant, Jersey Prince, Jersey Knight – These male hybrids are rust- and fusarium-resistant. Because they don’t seed out, you won’t have to worry about seedling plants sprouting throughout your yard and potentially spreading disease. These do very well in the north, but should also do well in southern climates.
UC-157 – Developed by UC Davis, this variety is recommended for southern climates. It has been bred for rust- and fusarium-resistance. Additionally, this variety is easy to start from seeds.
It’s usually best to get asparagus crowns from a local supplier, rather than from a mail order catalog. This gives you the ability to check the roots to make sure they are healthy before you purchase them. Local suppliers also tend to stock varieties appropriate for your area. (I recently bought Mary Washington roots from our local Wal-Mart.) If you are not able to purchase roots locally, try to find a respectable asparagus supplier. Also, avoid buying large, mature plants (two years or older) with the hope that you will get a jump on asparagus spear production. Older plants may need a couple of years to recover from transplanting.
Certified disease-free seed is another way to start asparagus, but it can take up to an extra year to get transplantable crowns. If starting from seeds, set them out in seed trays and let them grow roots to the bottom of the trays. Then, bump them up to larger containers to grow to about 8 inches tall. Once they are large enough, transplant them to the garden site.
Alternately, they can be seeded directly into the prepared planting bed. After a few months, they should reach a size suitable for transplanting into a nursery row or directly into beds. Check your climate zone for the appropriate seeding and transplanting times.