Mr Fluttergrub’s garden: Asparagus lifts the clouds

May 1, 2024

It’s been a gloomy spring in so many ways. In most parts of the UK for any grower or farmer the darkest cloud, metaphorically and literally, has been the weather.

It’s almost May but the soil is still sodden. And here in Yorkshire recent weeks have been cold; northerly winds bringing well below average temperatures. Yesterday there was at last a glimmer of hope with only a few spits of drizzle on a dwindling wind and the thermometer topping ten degrees. At last the ground seemed about to start drying out. But the sound of rain sploshing against the window in the early hours washed hope away. Later, as I sloshed through the deepening puddles, it was obvious that plans to get parsnips, carrots and other crops sown would have to be put back yet again.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Despite the weather, the season rolls on, albeit slowly and with frustrating fits and starts. Then a British spring is never a smooth linear process. Yet it’s somehow reassuring to have markers of spring’s progress. A turning point is when the first asparagus is ready to cut.

Fresh asparagus, or ‘sparrow grass’, as it was known to me as a child, is one of the treats of late April and May. This year it has been particularly slow to reach cutting size due to the weather. Nonetheless, we’ve now had that first picking. As you’ll see, it was modest, but it’s a start. More should follow in the coming days.

First haul of asparagus on 25th April

There are lots of reasons to grow asparagus. It’s a crop with a gourmet reputation, beloved of TV and other celebrity chefs. Expensive to buy it has a relatively short season for fresh harvest, usually mid-April through to mid-June. From a growing point of view it has the advantage of being perennial. That means, unlike most other vegetables, there’s not the trouble of starting from scratch every season. Once established a mature asparagus bed can continue to produce for many years. It’s also a crop that delivers a harvest at a time of year, the so-called ‘hungry gap’ period, when there are relatively few vegetables ready on the plot. Cutting the first spears is something of a turning point. The first asparagus pickings signify that spring must at last be springing.

A young asparagus shoot just about big enough for cutting.

Growing asparagus isn’t always easy, especially if you’ve heavy land like most of mine. This is a crop that performs best on lighter, sandier, soils. On ground that’s damp or sticky asparagus can still be grown successfully, but its best cultivated on mounded up beds formed of well-rotted compost. If planning a new bed choose an open, non-shaded, position. A sunny spot will always produce an earlier and better crop. Beginning a new bed also requires patience. Starting from seed is possible, but it’s a protracted and fiddly business taking three years before much of a crop can be harvested. A more convenient and quicker option is to buy young plants or ‘crowns’. These are available from various seed companies and are usually planted in spring. With an already developed, spidery, root system, crowns can give a usable crop in the second year after going in the ground.

It’s essential when setting out a new asparagus bed to ensure the site is free of perennial weeds. Asparagus forms a dense, matted, root system which can’t be hoed or forked to any depth. It’s also important to give each plant plenty of space. Place too close and the harvested spears are likely to be scrawny. About 40cm between plants is the minimum spacing, with a similar distance between rows if more than one is to be laid out. As for varieties, the newer male types (yes, asparagus can be male or female; you can tell if some plants are female as the mature fern-like growth will have berries) such as Gijnlim or Backlim, are said to be more productive and produce thicker spears. Personally I’m not convinced this is correct. For a good quality crop the old Victorian variety Connover’s Colossal still has much to recommend it.

Apart from cutting down the dead tops or ‘fern’ in autumn, and perhaps applying a winter mulch of compost or manure, an established asparagus bed needs little attention except for occasional patrols to check for asparagus beetle. This annoying pest mainly feeds on the tall top growth asparagus makes in summer after cutting of the young spears has finished. If left unchecked it can cause severe defoliation. This will tend to weaken the plants and may reduce next season’s crop. Fortunately the asparagus beetle is fairly conspicuous. About seven millimetres long, it has a distinctive red thorax and yellow wing cases. It does jump readily though, so if you find nabbing it tricky look out for it’s lazier larvae which are grey/black and about one centimetre in length.

With the asparagus under way, next up for harvest should be the first early potatoes. The initial batch of these, planted in the big greenhouse in mid-February, is now showing floppy foliage and fading flowers, signs of tubers being big enough to make digging worthwhile. The variety I use is the fastest I know: Rocket. Later I’ll conduct a cautious excavation to see whether we have lift off.

Sometimes it seems, as T. S. Eliot famously put it in the opening line of The Waste Land, that April ‘is the cruellest month’. Yet as the first crops of the new season begin to mature there is hope, even in this grim spring, that better days are just around the corner.

We hope you enjoyed reading Mr Fluttergrub’s uplifting asparagus tips. Maybe you have experience of growing asparagus yourself? If so, we’d love to hear about it and add it to this article for the benefit of our WWOOF UK community. Email us: editor@wwoof.org.uk

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