Byline: JOHN HUMPHRIES
STALKS and roots are undoubtedly the aristocrats of the kitchen garden and asparagus is the noblest of them all.
It has often been said that asparagus is an acquired taste but that is probably explained by the short season, not much more than six weeks for the home grown crop although imports from Peru means asparagus is now available all year.
Although the Egyptians were nibbling on the sticks in the third millennium BC, and the Greeks elevated asparagus into their pantheon of garden mythology, this epicurean vegetable, generally regarded as posh food, has only more recently broken through the class barrier.
A member of the lily family, the edible parts of asparagus are the immature shoots of the tuberous roots leaving those not eaten to develop fern-like foliage.
An asparagus bed is a long-term investment requiring patience during the first three years when none of the shoots should be cut, and afterwards taking care not to exhaust the bed by over-harvesting.
I have grown asparagus from seed but that takes even longer before the sticks are ready for harvesting.
One or two-year-old plants are expensive but they do reduce the wait.
Like most plants likely to remain in the same place for a considerable time - in the case of asparagus a bed can be harvested for 20 years - proper preparation is essential.
March is the month to plant an asparagus bed in a sunny part of the garden, the soil enriched with farmyard manure, old mushroom compost or seaweed, adding lime if necessary to achieve pH 5.6.
One-year-old plants are the cheapest and are handled more easily. After digging a trench 10 inches deep and 12 wide, take care not to let the crowns dry out before planting 24 inches apart, spreading the roots evenly before covering with three inches of soil.
The remaining soil is used to back fill the trench gradually during the summer.
In autumn the asparagus ferns are cut to ground level as soon as they turn yellow but not until the second year after planting. Dress the bed every March with a general fertilizer like Growmore and mound up the soil a few inches along each row.
A summer mulch with decayed farmyard manure or compost stifles weeds and helps retain moisture in the bed.
The big moment with an asparagus bed is the first harvest, three years if grown from one-year-old plants, five from seed. Harvest only two or three sticks from each plant to start, stopping all together in early June.
The tastiest shoots will be no longer than four inches and, with the tips still firmly closed, are removed from just below the surface with a sharp knife. In year four all shoots can be cut for six weeks.
When the bed is five years old a couple of plants will provide a person with a helping of asparagus each week for the six weeks of cutting.
Because of the time it takes to get a bed up and running, a new row is best added to the bed after 10 years so that as the original plants decline you do not have that agonising three-year wait all over again.
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