Ever since I took over plot 7a in summer 2015 there was one thing which I knew I wanted. That one thing was an asparagus bed. I love those few short weeks in spring during which farm shops are boasting about their “fresh local asparagus”. I also love the taste of a few grilled spears adorned with something as deliciously simple as a poached egg. The one thing I do not love about asparagus though is the price of it. You can quite understand why it is an expensive delicacy, with its short harvesting period and the inability to purchase it year round, it really is something of a springtime treat. However, I always like to cut costs where I can and I also loved the idea of challenging myself to grow my own asparagus.
The one thing that had deterred me from growing my own asparagus until this year was that an asparagus bed is a pretty permanent feature. The plants can be productive for anything up to twenty years and once you have chosen the spot for the bed, it can’t be moved. When I first took over plot 7a I wasn’t ready for such a big commitment! I wanted to take some time to work out exactly where I wanted my bed to be and be sure that I wasn’t going to change my mind a year or two into this project.
Being something of an indecisive gardener, this thinking period lasted nearly three years! Finally at the start of 2018 I had made up my mind. I had chosen an area for my asparagus that I was completely happy with and I decided that this would be the year I fulfilled my asparagus dreams.
The second decision I was faced with was whether to grow my asparagus directly in the ground or in a raised bed. This was a much easier decision and I opted for a raised bed. The reason I went for a raised bed was firstly because I wanted to ensure the crowns were planted in well draining, good quality soil. My allotment plot has fairly heavy soil and drainage can sometimes be a problem.
The second reason was that I felt it would be easier to control the weeds in a raised bed. Asparagus needs to be planted in soil that is very free from roots and weeds, as it has a very large but shallow root system. It is easy for the roots of an asparagus plant to become disturbed, especially during weeding and so it is important to start the plants off in an area that is as weed free as possible. If weeding needs to be done at a later date it is important to weed asparagus beds by hand as any other method can damage the plants or roots which is obviously not good!
There are a lot of different varieties of asparagus to choose from, but I selected the variety named “Mondeo”. The reason I selected this variety was that it is an early variety and after 3 years of procrastinating, I wanted to see results as quickly as possible! I wish I could say my choice was based on a more informed judgement, but in all honesty, speed won out!
I ordered my plants online and whilst waiting for them to arrive I decided to thoroughly prepare the area they were going into so that there would be no delays in planting out once they turned up. Firstly, I thoroughly dug the ground underneath the raised bed and removed as many weeds and roots as is humanly possible to do so! Then, still not being satisfied, I dug down a little deeper. I took the soil level down to approximately 6 inches below the level of the raised bed and then I did something that I have never done before. I had got hold of some free carpet samples through a certain online social media site and I used these to completely cover the soil. I even brought them up around the edges of the raised bed so that there were no gaps whatsoever for weeds to creep through.
Once I was happy with my (very colourful) layer of weed resistance, I filled in the raised bed with a mixture of soil and compost to create a fine, sandy mix for my asparagus. The raised bed I was working with measured 1m by 2m and was approximately 15cm in depth. By digging below the level of the bed, I had a depth of approximately 30cm to work with. I filled the whole bed with approximately 10cm of the soil mix and then I created a mound of earth in the centre of the raised bed, approximately 30cm wide and 10cm in height.
This mound was what the asparagus crowns were to be planted on. It is important to plant asparagus this way as the roots need to be carefully spread out over the mound and given plenty of room. Once my plants had arrived, I eagerly took them up to the plot and carefully removed each individual crown. I had ordered 5 crowns as this was all I had space for. I placed each crown on top of the mound of earth and carefully spread out the roots over the soil. They were even longer than I had anticipated and they looked like strange tentacles reaching over the bed. I spaced each crown approximately 30cm apart.
Once the crowns were each in place I carefully covered over all the roots. I then continued covering the entire crowns with a further 10cm of soil. Unlike other fruit and veg, such as strawberry plants, asparagus crowns need to be completely covered with soil. I then gave the bed a thorough water and myself a pat on the back for finally checking an item of my “allotment bucket list”.
Within a couple of weeks I was amazed to see some very small shoots above the soil level, it was all happening much quicker than expected! The shoots really were surprisingly fast growing and just a few days after I had spotted these tiny shoots the first asparagus spears were growing well. I swear they seemed to go from 1cm tall to 15cm in a matter of days.
However, though the spears were growing well, I also knew that I wouldn’t be eating my own homegrown asparagus this year. You cannot harvest asparagus in the first year that it has been planted. Instead you have to leave the spears to grow as tall and strong as possible so that the plant can strengthen and produce well in future years.
The first spears can be thin and fragile, so it is a good idea to plant them in a sheltered position if possible as strong winds can damage them. My plot is on a fairly sheltered site, but even so, we had a storm a few weeks ago and sadly when I visited the plot after this I did discover that one plant had been damaged. The thin spear which had grown to nearly two feet tall had unfortunately been completely broken off in the wind and was laying on its side on the bed. This was disheartening but thankfully the other four plants were all ok. This damaged plant has since sprouted new growth but I don’t yet know if this initial damage has caused any long term harm.
After the plants have been left over summer, once autumn comes you have to cut the plants back down to soil level and mulch them well for winter. If you have chosen a variety that produces female plants then it is a good idea to pick off the seed heads as well. I however, have chosen an all male variety of asparagus as in all honesty, things just seemed a little easier this way!
In the second year of growth I have heard mixed reviews on whether to harvest or not. Some guides say to leave the plants to grow again, whereas others say it is possible to harvest just a couple of spears from each plant. I am sure the former advice on waiting for the third year before harvesting may well produce even stronger plants, but I am not sure if I can be that patient! I think I will wait and see how the plants are looking next year and the reassess the harvesting situation then!
Even though it will be at least a year until I am reaping the rewards of my hard work and munching on my first crop of homegrown asparagus, I am so happy that I have finally got the ball rolling and started growing it. I am sure a year or two down the line I will be posting a blog entry about my long awaited asparagus harvest, but until then, I am just going to enjoy watching it growing bigger each day and dreaming of how good it is going to taste when it takes centre stage on my dinner plate!