Spotlight on

A Rare Breed

Asparagus Breeding
Photo: Steve Garrison, retired extension specialist.

Steve Garrison has been officially retired since 2002, but you'd never know it from the hours he keeps at Rutgers Agricultural Research & Extension Center (RAREC) in Upper Deerfield, New Jersey.

Garrison is an expert in asparagus breeding, so spring is his busiest time of the year. From March through May, and sometimes even into June, he's usually in the fields, checking and harvesting his plants, seven days a week. Post harvest, he cuts back to four or five days a week, and in the winter, his visits drop down to a "mere" three days a week.

"I enjoy my time here and doing what I do and the people that I work with," Garrison explained.

Luckily for him, his commute is short. Garrison grew up on the family farm just two miles from RAREC, in Pittsgrove, NJ. Today, he and his wife live in the house his grandfather built in 1897.

Garrison's experiences from growing up in a small farming community and his desire to stay close to the family's agricultural roots led him to Rutgers' College of Agriculture, where he received his bachelor's and master's degrees. He earned his doctorate in horticulture and plant physiology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and then headed back to New Brunswick, where he started his academic career at Rutgers. In 1966, Garrison joined the faculty as a horticulturalist, with teaching and research responsibilities. In 1985, he jumped on the opportunity to transfer to RAREC, where he's been ever since.

Garrison is part of a team, along with Chee-Kok Chin, professor in the Department of Plant Biology and Pathology, and John Kinelski, field technician, that has been in charge of the asparagus breeding program at Rutgers for the last two decades.

In 1953, Howard Ellison, regarded as one of the most influential asparagus breeders in history, was hired to head the asparagus breeding program. During his tenure, he produced several hybrids that are considered to be among the most productive and widely adaptable ever developed. Garrison started out by assisting Ellison with his breeding work and later took over the program when Ellison retired. In 1988, Garrison handed over the reigns to Chin, who serves as the current director of the program.

The asparagus breeding team looks at ways to improve spear quality, yield, and disease resistance. A good variety boasts tight spear tips and strong stalks, produces consistently high yields, and is resistant to disease.

In order to develop these new varieties, Garrison selects the plants and Kinelski makes the crosses in the greenhouse. Later, Chin does the tissue culture work and produces parent plants that are used for seed production.

When a promising new variety is produced, small quantities of seed are sent to many locations throughout the world for trial testing as part of the International Asparagus Cultivar Trial.

In recent years, Rutgers has released two all-male hybrids--Jersey Supreme and Jersey Deluxe--that consistently outperformed industry standards in trials at multiple sites. Rutgers focuses on producing only all-male hybrids as female plants use a good deal of energy to produce fruit--energy that could otherwise be used to strengthen stalks or produce higher yields. A new series of hybrids, including NJ953 and NJ977, produce high yields of high-quality spears during warm harvest temperatures. These new hybrids are being licensed to major international seed companies for distribution to growers throughout the world.

The asparagus team has also been working on an all-purple asparagus and an asparagus with no purple pigment.

"Our goal is to produce unique types of asparagus with high yields, superior spear quality, and disease resistance," Garrison said. "Right now, we're working on an all-purple variety based on a variety we got from Europe. There's a lot of interest in this from home gardeners."

A bonus for lovers of asparagus is that the all-purple variety has a higher sugar content than conventional hybrids. The no-purple variety is light green in color, but so far, there's no indication as to the effect on flavor.

Regardless of the variety, asparagus is a true passion for Steve Garrison, and Rutgers has been lucky to benefit from his passion and expertise for more than four decades.

  1. Rutgers
  2. Executive Dean of Agriculture and Natural Resources
  3. School of Environmental and Biological Sciences