LOOK IN the shops when this issue of The Field first comes out and you will probably see asparagus from all over the world, but if you have a little patience and wait a few weeks, you can avoid having the food miles on your conscience and eat really fresh, British asparagus. What is more, if you set about it now, you could be feasting on your own home-grown asparagus in two years.
It never ceases to amaze me how few vegetable gardeners grow asparagus. I suppose the fact that this is a permanent crop that does not fit into the normal rotation may be a reason. Also, asparagus does take time to establish. However, once you get there, it goes on cropping for years. So, why not devote a few square yards at the end of the vegetable plot to this delicious harbinger of spring?
April is the time to plant, and there are plenty of sources of “crowns”. If you cannot find them at the garden centre, most of the mail order seed companies will send them. Good soil preparation is essential, as there is no option to cultivate once established.
So, dig your soil well, and remove all perennial weed roots. Add some well-rotted manure or good garden compost, and lime if the soil is at all heavy. For really clay soils it is probably best to import a new, lighter topsoil and create a raised bed. The crowns should then be planted about 30cm apart, with 90cm between the rows.
Sometime in the next few weeks, little asparagus spears will emerge, but do not attempt to harvest any. Your crowns have been severely checked by transplanting and need to use every last bit of this year’s growth to re-establish. Indeed, if your site is exposed to wind, it also pays to support the growths with string and canes to prevent them being broken off.
Hand-weed the crop regularly through the summer, and perhaps add a dressing of fish, blood and bone to encourage growth. After the tops have died back in autumn, cut them away.
Next spring, probably in mid April, you should be rewarded with the appearance of some much bigger spears. If you like, you can cut one or two from each plant as a foretaste of things to come, but do not over do it. The real bounty comes the following year, when you can harvest seriously, probably until the end of May.
From year three onwards, the crop is fully established and you should be able to cut to the longest day. After this, add a dressing of fertiliser, a mulch of well-rotted compost or dung, and keep weed free. Do all this and you should be able to harvest asparagus about three times a week from late April to mid June for many years to come.
Mike Swan is head of education at The Game Conservancy Trust.