Asparagus is something of a luxury crop. It takes up quite a bit of room for only a modest yield over a short season and the space cannot really be used for anything else. Nonetheless, in its season, it is one of our favourite vegetables. It is not, though, a crop that is generally recommended for anyone without a good sized plot as there are other, higher yielding vegetables, that would probably be preferred where there is limited space. Fortunately, we have enough space to provide one 4 by 21 foot bed dedicated to growing asparagus. This accommodates two rows of twenty crowns, spaced one foot apart with two foot between rows. This is rather less than is generally recommended between rows, but I do not anticipate any problems with this spacing.
Modern asparagus varieties are all male hybrids. These produce a relatively high yield and do not waste any energy in producing the berries that female plants bear. These are the sorts grown commercially, and fresh English asparagus is, in my view, exceptional, as compared with imports. The only problem is getting the spears fresh enough – even in season, those offered in the supermarkets and greengrocers are sometimes a little older than is desirable. Although we both enjoy asparagus, it is one of those vegetables that really is best in its season, so we do not normally buy the imported sorts. The asparagus most often sold here in the UK is the green sort. Northern continental Europe often favours the white form, which is produced by covering the shoots as they grow to exclude light. I do not intend to blanch any of our asparagus.
I like to grow old open pollinated varieties and, for asparagus, this means a mixture of male and female plants, and probably a reduced yield. One could always grow these for a season and select male plants once it is clear which are bearing berries. One can readily buy good asparagus grown from modern varieties, so I really wanted to grow some more interesting sorts at home.
When deciding on varieties, one that was always on our list was Connover’s Colossal, the great variety of the Victorian era. Like many varieties, it originated in America, and is one of the few open pollinated sorts that is still considered to offer reasonable cropping potential. It is also regarded highly for its flavour, which, for me, is more important than yield, which I do not doubt is lower than modern sorts. We would have planted this variety last year, but were let down by a supplier who failed to deliver our order. We received some substitute crowns for autumn planting, but these were a mixture of modern varieties and I was not so interested in growing these so gave them to some friends. Completion of the bed was therefore delayed until this spring. Two varieties we did get from another supplier, Seeds of Italy, www.seedsofitaly.com, were an ancient purple sort from Albenga, Liguria, and a selection of wild asparagus. We planted one row with ten crowns of each. These were superb quality crowns, larger and more robust than I have seen anywhere else, and grew well last year. The wild sort has just started to emerge, which is quite early, whilst the purple variety has not yet broken the surface. In any event, asparagus should not be harvested until the third year so that the plants establish properly, so our first proper harvest will have to wait another year. Thereafter, one can expect many years of crop with little effort, aside from weeding and an annual dressing of manure or compost. I might just take one or two spears this year to see how they taste, but will otherwise leave them be.
This year we secured some crowns of Connover’s Colossal from Blackmoor Nurseries, www.blackmoor.co.uk. These were of good quality; not so robust as those from Seeds of Italy, but not bad at all. A trench was dug, about one foot wide, and a little soil ridged up down the centre. The crowns sit on this mound of soil with their thick roots arranged to either side. The roots quite naturally divide this way. There are various recommendations as to planting depth, but six to eight inches is, I think, reasonable. The soil ought to be deeply cultivated and reasonably free draining; soil amendment or a raised bed might be beneficial on heavy soils. Weeds will need to be kept under control, and the plants watered during very dry spells, but otherwise little more will be needed.