Some things are meant to grow with you. From an early age, Bess Abell (born Elizabeth Clements) knew that asparagus held an important place in the life of her family. Her mother was a great fan of the leggy vegetable, as was her father, Earle Clements, former Governor of Kentucky (1946-1950). He was an avid gardener and talented chef, too.
EASTER AND ASPARAGUS
Bess remembers Easter time in the Bluegrass State when the tiny shoots first made their appearance. She would cut the spears when they were still small, snapping them off at the soil line. To mark the occasion, her mother would whip up big bowls of Hollandaise sauce for the family to use for dipping. Ever since, Easter and asparagus have been indelibly linked in her mind.
Years later, when Bess married Tyler Abell, she moved into his family home in Potomac, Maryland. At the time, Tyler’s stepfather (newspaper and radio journalist Drew Pearson) owned a sprawling country house overlooking the Potomac River. In addition to acres of land, Pearson owned a dairy farm where he raised cows to aid in the war effort. The family also maintained a vegetable garden on the property.
Tyler and Bess Abell’s garden
As it turned out, Tyler’s mom really loved asparagus, too. Furthermore, decorating eggs and eating asparagus around Easter time was a family tradition. When Tyler took over his stepfather’s garden in 1969, Bess remembers her dad suggesting they put in an asparagus patch. According to Tyler, Clements said he’d buy the seeds if Tyler and his sons would sow them. They began planting in 1972.
Tyler still remembers his father-in-law’s instructions. “We dug a trench 6” deep and laid the asparagus in the bottom with the roots spread out and crowns sticking up,” he said. “Then we backfilled with manure, which we had plenty of, since we were a dairy farm.” Once finished, they mulched with straw.
As the first shoots began to emerge in the spring, the boys kept on adding straw until the spears finally reached ground level. In the first year, they only harvested them once. But in the second year, they harvested them twice and in the third year they cut them as often as they wanted.
Over the decades as the crop established, Tyler replanted each year following the above protocol. As the asparagus grew in number, he painstakingly marked new plantings with flags so they’d know which ones needed more attention. In his experience, the spears can rocket out of the straw in a single morning, growing a good 6 to 9 inches.
“They shoot up like a rocket,” he said. “The pointy end is built for that.”
Today, the asparagus are all different varieties, selected mainly from Johnny’s seed catalogue. Tyler isn’t sure exactly how many they’re currently growing, since each year they add or replace plants along the 50’ stretch of wood fence that borders the garden. Just like in Bess’ home state of Kentucky, the first spears come up around Easter. They typically last until the Fourth of July.
The taste? “I’d say the big fat ones are the best because they’re succulent and tender,” Tyler said. “The skinny ones aren’t nearly as interesting. Though, if you’re like me, the only purpose for asparagus is as a carrier for Hollandaise sauce.” (See Bess’ recipe for Hollandaise sauce below.)
Bess said, “The flavor is so different from store-bought. It’s more mild-tasting, kind of like a giant sweet pea.”
Aside from the asparagus, the rest of the Abell’s garden is heavy on vegetables planted in long rows and bordered by a series of 11 raised garden beds. There are cabbages, broccoli, peas and onions and lots of tomatoes as well as zinnias (Tyler’s favorite) to attract pollinators. Craggy old apple trees, elegant pears and blueberry bushes surround the garden. A bluebird house and other tiny bird domiciles can be faintly glimpsed among the trees.
Over the decades, the garden has come to involve the community, with many of the Abell’s neighbors participating in the planting as well as sharing in the harvest. Still, there’s nothing quite like the appearance of the first slender green spears come Easter-time. More than just a vegetable garden, the family’s history lives on in the asparagus story.
For more information on asparagus growing and harvesting, check out this great reference at Veggie Harvest.
BESS ABELL’S HOLLANDAISE SAUCE RECIPE
- 1/4 pound (1/2 cup) butter
- 2 egg yolks
- ½ lemon, squeezed
Whisk together egg yolks and lemon juice. Stir ingredients over a low flame until the butter melts and sauce is thickened. Serve immediately.
Bess Abell was Assistant to Lady Bird Johnson, Vice Presidential period, 1961-
This story first appeared in Connection Newspaper’s May issue of Home, Life, Style.