MSU researches asparagus crop management from the ground up

Michigan State University faculty are engaged in a research partnership with vegetable growers that will improve plant, disease, pest and water management in asparagus.

Western Michigan is home to vegetable growers that make our state a national leader in asparagus production. It is not surprising then that these growers are also leaders in partnering with Michigan State University researchers to improve crop management. This partnership is continuing to yield new insights as researchers take a comprehensive approach to better understand asparagus plants, pests, diseases and water use.

This comprehensive approach is well-illustrated by the work of Dr. Mathieu Ngouajio, who literally investigates asparagus biology from the ground up. In addition to conducting research on soil management, his lab has collected data showing how asparagus physiology changes over the season. Like most perennial plants, asparagus stores nutrients in its roots over the winter. In the spring, asparagus plants tap these reserves to fuel production of harvestable spears. However, that’s not the whole story. After harvest ceases, new shoots are allowed to leaf out and develop into full “fern,” which captures solar energy to recharge the plant’s fuel tank. Ngouajio’s work suggests that protecting asparagus fern until early September is important; after this time, most nutrients have travelled from the fern to the roots to provide fuel for next year’s harvest.

Fern is the photosynthetic powerhouse of asparagus plants. While production
fields contain male plants, female plants (pictured here) produce bright red berries,
which are harvested for seed. Photo credit: Ben Werling, MSUE

Above the ground, asparagus plants face a host of diseases and pests that can reduce yields. Drs. Mary Hausbeck and Leah Granke are unraveling environmental factors that promote development of Puccinia asparagi, a key pathogen that causes asparagus rust. Preliminary data suggests that cloudy mornings may favor disease development. These and other environmental factors can be monitored to enable the use of disease models that draw on weather data to allow growers to target fungicide sprays only when there is a substantial risk of disease.

From an entomological perspective, Dr. Zsofia Szendrei and her student Rob Morrison are investigating the biology and management of the asparagus miner, a tiny fly that may vector Fusarium fungus, a major cause of early decline in asparagus yields. Recently, Szendrei’s lab has identified effective insecticides for chemical control of this insect, documented seasonal fluctuations in its abundance, and identified parasitic wasps that may provide natural control.

Variable weather can also pose challenges for asparagus production and crop production in general. To help growers meet this challenge, Dr. Dan Brainard and graduate student Ben Byl are investigating the potential for irrigation to maintain plant health during times of water stress. Their preliminary results suggest irrigation can increase yield in dry conditions, providing a positive return on investment. Their ongoing work will enable them to determine if this holds across years with different weather patterns.

Results of Michigan State University asparagus research were presented at the Great Lakes Fruit and Vegetable Expo, Dec. 4-6, and are now posted online. Both existing and beginning asparagus growers can attend our Oceana Asparagus Day on Tuesday, March 12, 2013, in Hart, Mich. Please contact the Oceana County MSU Extension office at 231-873-2129 or email Ben Werling, west Michigan’s new Michigan State University Extension vegetable educator, for more information.

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