Spears of destiny: How to grow your own asparagus

It's asparagus season – and there's nothing better, argues our correspondent, than melting butter over your very own, home-grown crop.

The season for English asparagus has begun and we can look forward to six weeks' pigging out before the shutters come down again. But for proper feasts, you have to grow your own. The cost of asparagus (£4 a bundle at the start of the season) limits its pleasure. You need at least a bundle per person.

Asparagus requires commitment on the part of a gardener. Once planted, it stays in the same place. So you need to stay in there too, for the payback of the effort that it took you to plant it in the first place. But the craze for raised beds that has swept the allotments and back gardens of Britain is a bonus. Asparagus beds always were raised above the general level of a veg garden, because the plants, although they like to be well-fed, also like to be in well-drained soil.

Traditionally, beds were about 4ft wide and this is exactly the width that's recommended for the modern kind of raised beds, supported by wooden surrounds. You can get at it easily from all sides to weed, without ever having to tread on the soil. So if you've already got raised beds, then the most off-putting part of planting asparagus is already behind you. All you have to do is acquire the plants, which growers usually send out between mid-March and early June.

Another reason for growing your own is that, like sweetcorn, it spoils as soon as it is picked. Even if you take out a bank loan and clear the greengrocer's shelves to produce an asparagus feast, you will be tasting the vegetable at third best. "Asparagus is not fresh when it is gathered in the morning for the evening's dinner," warned Edward Bunyard sternly in his Epicure's Companion published in 1937. The saucepan must be steaming on the stove even before you cut the spears. Cook them standing up, with thef heads gently steaming in a dome of silver foil fixed round the top of the pan.

Left to itself, asparagus produces both male and female plants. The female ones make thin spears called sprue, and carry small red berries on the fern which grows up when you finish cutting the crop in early summer. But most asparagus is now 'all-male', and produces only fat spears. To have plenty to pick, twice a week for six weeks, you will need at least 30 roots (or crowns as they are more generally called).

The Royal Horticultural Society recently carried out a four-year trial of asparagus to find out which ones were most worth growing. They grew 11 different varieties and six of them got Awards of Garden Merit. One of them was 'Connover's Colossal', an old Victorian variety, still available and still good. The rest were all-male kinds: the Dutch varieties 'Backlim' and 'Gijnlim', French 'Dariana', 'Guelph Millenium', a Canadian variety bred especially for its tolerance to cold, and the handsome dark 'Stewart's Purple'.

As far as Bunyard was concerned, the size of an asparagus spear depended not on its breeding, but on the way you grew it. "There is only one secret to obtain large sticks, and that is to have the plants wide enough apart – four-feet square, say the French growers, for each plant," he wrote. But 30 plants set out at that spacing would take up the whole of most modern gardens. We have to be meaner.

Asparagus grows wild all over Europe and has been cultivated ever since the word 'epicure' was invented. In 77AD, Pliny the Elder was already writing about the complicated ways in which growers produced the pale, blanched stems that the Romans preferred. That's how you still find it grown in Switzerland and Belgium.

In Britain at least, wild asparagus is commonest in sand dunes and other well-drained sites near the sea. In the garden it likes similarly well-drained sandy soils, but not hungry ones. Pile on well-rotted manure or compost. Dig in some grit if the soil's sticky. Water must be able to drain away from the crowns. If they're permanently soggy, they rot.

You can grow asparagus from seed, which is certainly the cheapest method, but it takes time. Most gardeners buy crowns which may be from one to three years old. The youngest crowns are cheapest and transplant most easily, though you will have to wait longer before picking a crop. If you plant one-year-old crowns, you can cut just a few spears in the second year after planting and start cutting seriously in the third. Plant any time between now and the end of May, setting the crowns about 45cm/18in apart in rows that are at least 75cm/30ins apart. At this spacing, you will be able to fit two long rows in a raised bed 120cm/4ft wide.

First take out a trench and then make a raised saddle down the middle of each trench. Soak the crowns for two hours in a bucket of water, then plant them astride the saddle, with the roots draped down either side of the ridge. Make sure that when the trenches are filled in, the crowns have no more than 10cm/4in of soil on top of them.

Once planted, an asparagus bed will go on cropping for at least 20 years. That is why it is worth making a good home for them. They do not like competition, so keep the bed free of weeds and resist the temptation to grow flowers among the asparagus fern. It's a strong temptation, because the fern is so pretty. Traditionally, beds were dressed with salt in summer. The plants don't need it to grow, but the salt at least discourages weeds and slugs. Mulch the beds thickly with manure or mushroom compost in late winter. Cut down the fern only when it has yellowed and died back in autumn.

When the asparagus crowns are properly established, you should be able to cut 8-10 spears from each crown, but the crop will be spread out over six weeks. That is why you need so many crowns to get a decent picking at any one time. If you like gadgets, you will cut your spears with an asparagus knife. This has a curious semi-circular flattened blade with saw teeth, but a sharp knife does just as well. Cut the stems just beneath the surface of the soil when the spears are 13-18cm/5-7in high. If you start cutting at the beginning of May, say, you should stop by the middle of June. Young plants should be cropped more lightly.

Moles are great connoisseurs of asparagus and crunch on the shoots underground before they ever see the light of day. Slugs can also inflict damage. The black and yellow asparagus beetle overwinters on or near asparagus beds and lays its black eggs on the emerging shoots. Both the larvae and the adult beetle feed on asparagus foliage. Catch the beetles in jars. They drop straight off the foliage when you nudge them. But don't get depressed by the problems. Just think of the melted butter running down your chin. Once you have eaten your own asparagus, you will never be able to do without it again.

Seed and crowns of AGM varieties of asparagus are available from Suttons Seeds (0844 922 2899, suttons.co.uk); Dobies (0844 701 7625, dobies.co.uk); Unwins (0844 573 8400, unwins.co.uk); Kings Seeds (01376 570000, kingsseeds.com)

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

SThree: Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: Do you want to get in...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before