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Green Gold

Our Rural Correspondent grows asparagus.

It is hard to conjure anything original to say about asparagus. Once it comes into season in Britain around mid-April, articles in praise of it blanket the British press. They generally extol British asparagus as the best in the world and they usually are accompanied by several recipe suggestions. Those of us who love the stuff can probably agree that asparagus is delicious, highly versatile (can any other vegetable be employed in so many ways?) and in season for far too short a time (till early June). The less refined of us might draw phallic comparisons and murmur about smelly urine.

When in season asparagus is readily available in the shops, though the local spears are for some reason substantially more expensive than those flown in out of season from Spain or Peru. About five years ago I decided to grow my own. I would not have done so if I had not possessed ample room on my vegetable patch, for asparagus require a good deal of space and hence are not suitable for the small garden. Most leisure gardeners who grow asparagus start with two year old crowns from which a small crop can be taken a year after they have been planted. However, I started with seeds. These are far cheaper but require more patience--at least three years must elapse between sowing and harvesting. I chose to grow Martha Washington, which is often described as a strong-growing, high-yielding and disease resistant variety. I am not sure why I selected Martha, though she now seems an inspired choice in the britishfoodinamerica context. Probably it was the only type available in the garden centre, but I have not been disappointed.

I began my seeds--usually a packet contains about 40 of them--in a tray in a greenhouse in spring. Once they were growing, I transferred them to an outdoor bed where they remained in a single row until Fall. Then I removed them to their final location, providing about a meter between each plant and each row. Each root should be deeply planted in richly manured ground (asparagus are heavy feeders). Digging done, the waiting commenced. The main reason that so much space between plants is necessary is that once harvesting ceases in June the spears must be allowed to develop. They shoot up to heights of around five feet and the patch is transformed into a jungle of fern-like plants that need firm but careful staking to protect the root system. The fronds should be cut down to a height of about six inches above the ground in mid-late autumn. Stalks should be left in place to indicate where the root is located. More manure should be added over winter and some careful weeding carried out in early Spring. Then it is a matter of waiting for the picking (or, more accurately, cutting) season to recommence.

All this might sound a lot of trouble and I am not sure, except for hardcore gardeners, whether growing asparagus from seed is to be recommended. There is, however, one great advantage in having asparagus in the garden. It can be cut, trimmed, cleaned and cooked in minutes. Indeed, it should be, for, as every asparagus commentator knows, the sugar in the spears begins to turn to starch as soon as cutting takes place. This presumably explains the inferiority of spears shipped halfway round the world. I shall be having some for supper in a few hours time, but the targeted spears are still happily growing as I write. Tonight mine will be lightly steamed, wrapped in York ham, sprinkled with Parmesan and briefly baked in a hot oven before receiving a poached egg. Nothing more is needed bar a jar of beer or glass of wine and some fresh, crusty bread. From vegetable patch to table in thirty minutes or so.