Asparagus will grow happily if you set up the right conditions from the outset and it’s worth it, as the plants will crop for up to 20 years once established. Find a sheltered and sunny spot where the soil is reasonably fertile and well-drained.
Preparing the asparagus beds
Asparagus plants can remain productive for up to 20 years, so it's worthwhile spending time on preparing the bed to give them a flying start in life.
- For a decent crop, asparagus needs to be given lots of space and is ideal for a large garden or allotment.
- It thrives in sun and well-drained soil, but needs some protection from the wind. Alternatively, grow in a raised bed.
- Asparagus is not suitable for containers, and will sulk if planted in heavy clay soils or in a shady spot.
- If you can, start in autumn by thoroughly preparing the ground. Ideally it should be excavated to a depth of 60cm (2 ft); if the soil has clay content put a layer of stone or broken bricks in the bottom to help with drainage, and mix sharp sand in with the soil backfill.
- Mix in plenty of well-rotted farmyard manure, and removing all perennial weeds.
- A week or so before planting, scatter some general fertilizer granules over the area (about 90g/sq m is ideal) and fork in, before raking the ground level.
- A bed 1.5m (5ft) wide will allow the planting of three rows with 45cm (1ft 6in) between the rows and approximately 25cm (10in) between the plants. If space is more limited a bed 1m (3ft) wide will accommodate two rows.
Planting the beds
Asparagus can be grown from seed, although it’s easier and more rewarding for those who are less patient to grow asparagus from a one year-old crown – a ready-grown plant which you can buy from a garden centre or nursery.
- Crowns weighing a minimum of 60gms (2oz) each should be planted now, in April.
- Just prior to planting immerse the crowns in water to re-hydrate them. Excavate small trenches along the proposed line of planting, with the base 15cm below original ground level, lay the moist crowns in the trench and cover with soil.
- The soil surface across the bed will be level with 13 to 15cm (five to six inches) of soil above all of the crowns.
- As a rough guide, when the beds are in full production, each crown should produce 250gms (9oz) during the season.
- Water newly planted crowns thoroughly and keep damp during dry weather.
- Succulent spears may appear soon after planting, but avoid the temptation to harvest them or you'll weaken the crowns.
- Cut down the stems in autumn, leaving 5cm (2in) stumps above the ground.
Asparagus ferns during summer
Caring for the beds
- To prevent competition, keep beds free of weeds.
- Don’t harvest asparagus the first year after planting, but let the spears develop to fern and allow the plant time to grow and increase its root system, which in turn will play a vital role in storing adequate levels of carbohydrates, the fuel needed to produce the harvestable spears in future years.
- Also as asparagus plants mature they have a tendency to rise out of the soil, so keep covering the crowns with compost each spring.
- Most plants are ready to be picked two years after planting, although several modern varieties have been bred for earlier cropping.
- In the second year after planting harvest for a short period, not exceeding two weeks and from year three harvest for six to eight weeks.
- To harvest spears, wait until they're about 12cm long and remove them with a serrated knife, cutting them off 7cm beneath the soil.
- Harvesting beyond mid-summer will shorten the life of the bed, and so stop then to allow the plants to build up their energy for next year, and you can give plants an extra boost by feeding with a general fertiliser.
After all the hard work of getting the asparagus out of the ground, do it justice on the plate.
- Cook it gently, as asparagus is one of the most nutritious vegetables you can eat. The simplest recipes are often best.
- Friends of asparagus are eggs, smoky crispy bacon, mozzarella, Parmesan and any crumbly cheese, chilli, cream, seafood, herbs such as mint, parsley, basil, rosemary.
- Perhaps just eat asparagus with caper butter or anchovy butter melted on top, get your fingers messy and prepare to try your luck.