Spalding Guardian Gardening 19 April 2012
I have just increased my asparagus bed by fifty per cent, by adding another 18 plants. Asparagus, I think, is one of those vegetables - like broad beans and avocado pears – that are great age indicators. Under fifteen years old and you’re seldom likely to enjoy them, over forty and you can’t get enough.
The first asparagus bed I ever saw was over a hundred years old. It was carefully tended by the full-time gardener, mounded up high through years of top dressing with nourishing compost and farmyard manure, and fed every spring with salt (because asparagus is a maritime plant) and blood, fish and bone fertiliser. It produced lashings of fat, green spears, and also lots of seedlings that had to be weeded out, because the old varieties seeded themselves copiously and the beds soon became overcrowded with inferior plants..
The worst asparagus bed I’ve come across belonged to two elderly ladies I lived next door to in the early seventies. It consisted of a row of spindly shoots at the base of the house wall, in a shady wind tunnel between our two properties. It was never fed or watered, but the anorexic spears were cut to death lovingly every year, as was the ‘fern’ which struggled through later in the year (so pretty in arrangements, they told me).
Somewhere between the two is my asparagus bed. It was planted about ten years ago, and although the spears are well looked after, and are always fat and juicy, there never seem to be enough of them, which is why I felt it was time to plant a few more crowns.
Modern varieties are generally all-male hybrids, so put their energies into the crop rather than producing seed and, subsequently, unwanted seedlings. The first of these was ‘Lucullus’, since when many new names have come onto the market, like the three varieties I’ve just planted – ‘Gijnlim’, ‘Pacific 2000’ and the attractively coloured ‘Stewart’s Purple’. Unfortunately, planting new crowns, as the young plants are called, is just as much of a fiddle as it always was, and you still can’t pick any for the first season, and then only sparingly for the next two years.
What has changed somewhat is the recommended spacings between the crowns and rows, presumably in deference to smaller vegetable gardens. It is now suggested that where space is at a premium, you can leave 30cm between plants rather than the 45cm that once was the norm, and make the bed with three or four rows 30cm apart, then a pathway of 90cm between each bed, instead of having just one well-spaced row per bed, with narrower paths between. Consequently the yield for the area is much higher, although the spears may be thinner.
The worst part of planting asparagus is the digging of the trench they are to be planted in. This needs to be about 30cm wide and 20cm deep – not a problem in itself – but then some of the soil has to be returned to the trench to form a mound about 10cm high, on top of which the crowns are placed, with their roots spread out over this mound. They are then covered with about 10cm of soil, which leaves a channel that is gradually filled in as the asparagus grows, so by autumn the soil surface is level. If you cheat and just dig holes, stuff the roots in and hope for the best, you’ll never get a good bed – believe me, I’ve tried it!
This piece originally appeared in the Spalding Guardian