Asparagus: The Long View
Perhaps it’s the economy, but garden centers nationwide are finding themselves having trouble keeping vegetable plants on the shelf this season. Having started my journey with a few tomato, cucumber, and squash plants myself over the past couple of years, I was one of the many inspired to take my efforts to a whole new level this season. So, I dutifully go off to my local home improvement center, rent some heavy machinery, and cut out 50 more feet of plant bed to house my new garden. I till, I mulch, I compost, and finally, I plant.
Of the many types of veggies I laid in the ground this spring, one of the most curious is asparagus. I had never attempted to grow this odd little vegetable before, and most people don’t have any idea what the plant looks like, or how it grows, based on the look of the tender spears we buy neatly rubber banded together at the grocery store.
Starting an asparagus patch begins with tilling the soil deep, breaking up rocks, adding rich organic material, and digging trenches in which the bare roots will be laid. Then, you cover with a couple of inches of loose soil, and wait.
Finally, little baby spears come out of the ground, and you begin, little by little, to add more soil to the deep trenches. With patience, you’ll have topped the plants with enough soil to level the surface. Each asparagus spear grows straight out of the ground, reaching its full height in a single day. They don’t get taller or fatter after this point, rather, the tips that we enjoy munching on leaf out and become like miniature christmas trees, sucking up sunlight and feeding the roots below.
So, once you see the little shoots emerge, it’s dinner time, right? Wrong.
Even with 2-year crowns, most gardeners wait a full one to two more seasons for their first harvest. Those tempting, green stalks that scream “EAT ME!” during that time have to be left alone, because the newly-laid roots need the energy they provide to establish strong roots that will produce year after year.
And now, the point. Those of us who have made the commitment to create, establish, nurture, and feed a new entrepreneurial project have much to learn from this ferny wonder. As freelance artists, most of us are trained to think in gigs - how much $$, how much time. Being an entrepreneur is something else entirely. When you seek to write the checks, not have them handed to you, you make the commitment to take the long view.
One of the most successful ensembles I know spent their first five years feeding their roots. During that time, every dollar of income they made went straight back into their business. Forgoing the usual small income that they could have paid themselves initially, they chose instead to put their money into marketing, press materials, and large artistic goals.
At the end of this nurturing period, they had enough money to commission a very well-known composer. As a result of this project, they became the ensemble of choice for the newly-created work, performing it at a large venue in NYC, which came with a stunning review in the NY Times.
Then, their world changed overnight. Booking agents who had stubbornly refused to answer their calls were responding with engagements, and tours were scheduled nationwide. Dates were planned so well in advance, that the players were able to create a yearly budget, prioritize providing health insurance, and pay themselves a salary for their work that was more regular than a per-service fee.
Had they chosen to harvest too early, they may have been able to afford more trips to Starbucks, but wouldn’t have achieved the commission that launched them to national attention. Consider how the lowly asparagus might have something to teach you. Would a web redesign yield more profit than expensive dinners out? Would better quality press kits make more of an impact than a couple of months of cable? Sacrifices in the short term lead to long-term, sustainable success.
The asparagus patch understands this. After that initial few years of gaining strength, it continues producing heavily with very little effort for over 25 years. I can't say that a career in the arts will take as little attention as this, but it can certainly feed you as well if you give it the right start.