Top autumn tip: Get a head start with the latest, hardy asparagus varieties
Sunday 28 September 2008
I find it hard to restrain myself from ordering optimistically in autumn. One of my most premature orders (so some may think) is 20 crowns of asparagus. Some gardeners might splutter, "Planting asparagus in autumn?", but these days, several companies offer asparagus crowns specifically for autumn planting. Newer varieties such as Pacific 2000 and Guelph Millennium are well suited to being tucked into summer-warmed soil in early October, gaining them six months' growth over plants started off next spring – and thus making any planted now ready to harvest come summer 2010, a whole season early.
One thing you need to watch for is the ordering deadline – Thompson & Morgan's is Tuesday, so get your requirements worked out sharpish. Ten crowns is the minimum order, but if you haven't the room for all 10 yourself, negotiate with a friend to buy the surplus or give them to a vegetable-growing pal as an early Christmas present. Just make sure you plant them as soon as possible after they arrive – this is not a plant to leave in the packing for weeks on end.
The ideal soil for asparagus is richly manured. I'm still nervous about manure following this summer's scandals about the use of aminopyralid (concerning possible pesticide residues in the manure, causing damage to plants), so my solution this year is going to be chicken pellets, and I'll go back to spreading manure when I know exactly where it's been.
Blackmoor Nurseries had another tip when I put in my order: make sure the drainage is spot-on if your soil is at all prone to waterlog, digging in a bag of sand or grit along with the manure. It's especially important to get this right with autumn-planted crowns, as asparagus hates to be damp and cold.
In Joy Larkcom's classic Grow your Own Vegetables (Frances Lincoln, £9.99), she recommends digging a trench 30cm wide and 20cm deep; then, make a mound of soil running down the centre of your trench, placing your crowns along the mound so their tops finish just below the soil surface, spreading out the roots over the mound and spacing 50cm apart. The deeper you plant, the thicker the spears. You can also fiddle with the spacing, moving the plants closer together or further apart; a more crowded plot will mean the plants run out of energy and die a little bit sooner.
But if you are feeling lazy, take heart from Charles Dowding, the organic growing expert. He eschews trenches and just digs a hole for each plant, popping his crowns in and planting, then topping up with manure to be dug in by worms, ensuring the soil's structure stays as good as possible. Roll on summer 2010.
Ready to go: Autumnal asparagus
German-bred, and one of the earliest to yield a flush of spears. 10 crowns for £14.99, www.thompson-morgan.com
An old variety, but a good one, which has earned itself an RHS Award of Garden Merit. Fairly hardy. 10 crowns for £10, www.blackmoor.co.uk
Keep the bright colour by steaming, relish the sweetness, and soak up the extra dose of antioxidants that comes with the purple. 10 crowns for £10, www.blackmoor.co.uk
Bred in New Zealand, this consistently wins out in taste tests. The spears are so tender that they can be eaten raw. 10 Crowns for £14.99, www.thompson-morgan.com
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