In late spring any gardeners that have grown their own asparagus beds are walking around with a wide, smug grin, like the proverbial Cheshire cats, boasting of the verdant, shooting fecundity of their harvest. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all grew asparagus for its health and cleansing properties, as it is a powerful diuretic, as well as rich in vitamins, minerals and fibre.
From the end of April right through to the middle of June, I get to eat my own, very special asparagus. In this article I am going to tell you how I do it.
First and foremost, you must understand that being an asparagus grower requires much patience and self-control. You must deny yourself instant gratification, and look instead to the divine pleasure of future fruits. Growing asparagus is not for the hasty, as crowns planted in the ground this year will only reward you with a reasonable harvest in three years’ time, although you could cut a few spears in year two. If this does not sound like your cup of tea then allow me to recommend a far swifter solution. Buy wonderful, fresh, seasonal British asparagus, and leave it to the professional experts who all deserve your cash.
If you wish to make your own asparagus beds you will need to dig, for your average family of four people, two long beds, each measuring about 1 metre wide and 10 metres long. If you have a smaller garden, then make the bed just 50 cm by 2 or 3 metres.
Put plenty of well rotted manure, compost, leaf mould and horticultural grit on the beds. Rake this goodness in. This method will greatly improve the fertility of the soil, and, above all its drainage. Asparagus crowns really hate being waterlogged, just like bulbs.
In March 2012 dig two trenches down the length of the beds, approximately 30 cm apart. Place the asparagus crowns at 30cm intervals in the ridges, so that they look like upside down mop heads. Then bury them with soil on top, and make the soil over them look like mounds, or raised beds. This will protect the crowns. I then tend to place more compost, manure and grit on top, as well as a few handfuls of fish, blood and bone slow release fertiliser, to feed the plants.
I water the beds well. Then begins the waiting.
In May 2012 you will get fronds that look like tall ferns with wispy foliage. In November 2012 you will need to cut the fronds down, to about 10 cm. height, and place them on the compost to rot away.
In late Spring of 2013 you will notice a few, small asparagus spears emerge, but do not be tempted to start picking them, as the plant is still too young. I place some more compost on top of the beds in March of the second year. I then start harvesting a little in the third year, and by the fourth and fifth year you can take all the spears you want.
In Italy and Spain, I have seen small holders grow the fat, white asparagus spears which they serve with fried eggs and olive oil. In Britain we tend to grow Asparagus Officinalis, and some of the popular cultivars are called Accell, Giant Mammoth, Connover’s Colossal, Martha Washington, Grolim, Backlim and Lucullus.
As soon as I harvest my asparagus spears I place them in a bowl of fresh water. Because of the grit in the soil they can taste sandy if you do not wash them carefully. Using my asparagus kettle I steam them gently for five minutes and pour lots of melted butter over them. I serve them with soft boiled eggs and soldiers, as well as using them in savoury pastry tarts, an accompaniment to meat and fish, in risotto and in soups.
In the brief, fleeting moments of late spring and early summer, the taste of freshly grown asparagus is one of the most sublime. I spend the rest of the year thinking about it. It may seem like a great deal of work and waiting, but like many things in life, denial and pleasure walk hand in hand.