An asparagus bed is an investment in both time and space. It is not, perhaps, the most productive of crops for the area it occupies and as a perennial crop it occupies that space year round. It also takes time to develop. If starting from crowns, which are one year old plants, it will be three years until harvesting can commence in earnest, and several more before the crowns are really productive. If starting from seed, it takes an extra year. Crowns vary in quality; I have had both ends of the spectrum: superb crowns from Seeds of Italy, on several occasions, and truly shocking crowns that never established from one of the large seed merchants who shall remain nameless.
Our previous bed had become quite productive when it suffered an unfortunate accident. A young lad who was helping out in the garden finished the job he was on and thought the mature asparagus plants were weeds. He removed them all. It is not surprising that he did not recognise them, as the mature plants with their delicate fern like growth look nothing like the compact spears one eats, and if one has not seen it before it would not be obvious what it was.
Not to be deterred, we decided to replant. However, the soil in the original bed was not perfectly suited. Ours is a sandy loam, which is ideal for asparagus, with a fair amount of silt and, unfortunately, a lot of stone in places. The stones are not ideal and spears would often come up bent as they hit stones en route and made a detour around them. When the old crowns were removed we decided to swap the soil with another part of the garden. We were relocating the polytunnel anyway, and that had beds that were in much better condition. It is also arguably preferable to replant in soil that has not grown the crop before. Around one foot of soil was excavated from the asparagus bed (by the same helpful young lad) and exchanged with clean soil. A thick mulch of organic matter was added and the bed has been covered for months waiting for planting time. On removing the weed fabric covering we found the soil to be in good condition, with a great many worms, which is always an encouraging sight.
Having had good crowns from them before, I returned to Seeds of Italy. Previously, we had grown, amongst others, a purple coloured variety known as Violetto d’Albenga, from Liguria, a coastal region of northern Italy. In our experience it produces spears of good quality and flavour. It has a long history of cultivation in the region, dating back at least to the sixteenth century and in all likelihood rather more than that. As will be abundantly clear from previous posts, I have a thing for old varieties. Even where modern sorts offer some advantages – and in the case of asparagus, undoubtedly higher yields – I still prefer to grow something with a history behind it. The second variety we are growing this year is new to us, but, of course, still at least a few hundred years old. It is known as Precoce d’Argenteuil, an early sort from what is now a suburb of Paris.
Asparagus is one of those plants where the male and female are on separate plants. Modern plantings are typically of all male hybrids, but both of ours are open pollinated sorts and will be a mixture of male and female plants. It is generally considered that the male plant is the more productive of the two, and possibly also with better spear quality. However, like many things in gardening, matters are not quite so clear cut. I have read a number of articles where it has been found, for certain cultivars and under particular methods of cultivation, that the females can be more productive and sometimes may have better quality, notably with tighter buds. Nonetheless, the notion that an all male hybrid is more productive is probably generally the case and, in particular, productivity is likely to be markedly better than that of an old open pollinated sort. Of course, this is not comparing like with like. One cannot sensibly take a variety that has been little improved over the course of several hundred years and compare it with one that is the result of intensive modern breeding programmes aimed at, amongst other properties, higher yields. In most cases, when growing old varieties, one would not be unduly concerned about yield. Cropping is usually entirely satisfactory. There are just a few crops where the difference is notable and asparagus is probably one of them. Regardless, I like old varieties and for me it is great to be able to grow something that has been a treasured crop for so many years and has that historical connection with a particular place and people. That just makes growing fruit and vegetables that much more interesting to me.
Crowns of the Ligurian variety are reasonably easy to obtain. Crowns of the Argenteuil variety are not. I found one grower in Italy who produces them and that was all. Seed is fairly easy to get from several sources so there was a fallback position, but it is a nuisance to have to start from seed and takes that extra year to establish. So, I contacted the very helpful Paolo at Seeds of Italy, a fellow enthusiast for traditional varieties, and asked if he might be able to get hold of some for me; he replied that he would have a go. I had not heard anything for a while an assumed that he was not able to, so when an email came from Seeds of Italy announcing that crowns were available I ordered 40 of the purple variety, enough to replant our asparagus bed, along with a packet of seed in case I wanted to start some of the others. I then had an email from Paolo saying the other crowns were sat on his desk. I was surprised and delighted in equal measure. We could, at that point, have changed our order and gone back to the original plan, which was 20 crowns of each variety, but on a whim I decided to keep the 40 Ligurian crowns and find somewhere else for the others to go. We have now taken one of our twelve main vegetable beds out of the rotation and planted that with the new variety. Asparagus may not be the most productive use of space but it is one of our favourite crops so we are happy to dedicate some more land to it. I am very thankful for Paolo’s efforts in securing those crowns when they were not a product that the company listed.
The only snag was that the crowns arrived at Seeds of Italy just before Christmas and were sent to us just before New Year. With the ‘brexit’ situation, it was unknown what restrictions would be imposed on 1st January 2021 on the import and export of plant matter, which probably explains the early arrival. The usual planting time is early Spring, typically March but perhaps into early April. The end of December or beginning of January is certainly too early, and we have had some quite horrid weather in the past month; either particularly cold with harsh winds or then particularly wet, neither great for working in the garden. So, after consulting with Paolo, I stored the crowns in buckets of just damp sand in the potting shed. A few days ago I inspected a couple just to see how they were doing. They were in reasonable condition but unsurprisingly not quite as fine as they were when they first arrived. They were also shooting; and shoots that were small on arrival had grown. Perhaps the potting shed could have been colder for ideal storage. In any event I decided that, even though it is still too early really for planting asparagus, the crowns were probably, on balance, better in the ground now rather than being stored for a further month.
Planting asparagus is quite a labour intensive job. After the usual sort of bed preparation, trenches have to be dug. Each should be one foot (30cm) or more in width, to accommodate the roots of the crowns, and some 8 to 10 inches (20 to 25cm) in depth. Crowns can be planted as close as one foot (30cm) apart if desired, or then spaced out a little more, say, around 18 inches (45cm). Rows should be a couple of feet apart. When the trench is dug, a ridge of soil, or individual mounds for each crown, are made down the centre. The crowns are placed on the mound or ridge and the roots arranged neatly to spread out to either side. Soil can then be placed over the crowns, taking care not to damage any shoots as these are rather fragile. Authorities vary as to how much to cover the crowns, some suggesting that it be done in several stages through the first year or so. In our case, with our light sandy soil, I decided that it probably did not matter too much and returned all of the soil to the bed after planting.
I hope the crowns will establish well in the coming year. It is always a worry when one has to store something before planting out or is forced to plant at the wrong time of year, but the crowns looked to be very fine indeed so I am hopeful. It will be several years before we can take a harvest but perhaps when they are fully established, we might try to produce some white asparagus from the Argenteuil variety; I understand that it is well suited to that purpose. We have never tried blanching the stems before but it should not be too difficult. Most asparagus in Britain is of the green sort, whereas on the continent, white asparagus is more popular. They are different and we like both, but the white sort is hard to find here so it would be nice to produce our own. For now, though, the beds have been draped with a layer of fleece, which will be removed after a few weeks. There is nothing more to be done, except to wait and hope that each of the crowns produces a few spears to begin the process of strengthening the crowns in readiness for that future harvest.