Asparagus-counting traditions hard to break

By Bob Huber: Local Columnist

Now that summer’s over, we can all give thanks for seasonal changes. In other words, no more steaming days, sweltering nights, grass clippings and asparagus sprouts.

The asparagus liturgy at our house began one day years ago when my wife, Marilyn, came home with a sack of roots. She’d paid $6 for that sack and had an expression on her face similar to the boy who traded his mother’s cow for a bag of beans.

Then without a thought for the future or giants lying in wait in the clouds she dragged me around the place to dig small trenches, filling them with manure and other assorted goodies, and burying each root as carefully as one would lay away the body of a rich uncle.

At the end of the first week she began counting asparagus shoots, and no one had a moment’s rest after that. Counting asparagus shoots, you see, was a high-water mark for people who get a kick out of growing their own vegetables and ridiculous stuff like that.

I’m not sure who the first asparagus counter was, but I do know this annual summer ritual is very old. Asparagus counters were around before the Normans took home the goal posts from Hastings.

Die-hard asparagus counters like to recall patches they had in l986 and 1992. Those were banner years. Other folks recall blizzards and droughts, but gardeners always remember asparagus shoots. That’s what separates them from human beings.

I never understood what fostered all the excitement. Those sprouts were about the size of a fine line left by a Bic pen. I couldn’t spot them without a microscope.

But Marilyn got caught up in this tradition like a twig in a flash flood.

At least twice a day she would wander around the place, bent over double, counting, always counting. “Forty-three today,” she’d announce, grinning ear to ear as though she’d just discovered a gold egg laid by our neighbor’s mangy goose.

About then our daughters, Tracy and Holly, cornered me and said, “Dad, you have to talk to Mom. She’s mooning passing motorists again.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” I said. So I marched out to the garden and confronted her.

“Uh, so what’s the latest count?”
“Just over 100,” she said.
“When do we get to eat them?”
“Next year.”

I went back in the house, because I had learned years earlier that when it came to Marilyn’s whims, there was little I could do. She’d already been through bridge—I first noticed her interest when she began shuffling cards in bed—and china painting—we ate off paper plates, because there wasn’t a dish or salt shaker we were allowed to touch.

One time she took an interest in pottery making. Weird-shaped containers sprung up all over the house, hand wrought on her personal potting wheel and cooked in her kiln. And then there was the time—well, I could go on and on, but I won’t.

I’ll just say that for years strangers to our place were guided by neighbors with this simple phrase—“Just drive up this road until you see a middle-aged grandmother mooning you. You’ll hear her humming a little tune. She’s real content that way.”

So if you’re looking for something new and exciting in your life, ask your seed store if counting asparagus is right for you. Side effects may include runny nose, blurred vision and the inability to stand up straight any time soon.