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Asparagus

UK Garden Centre - Information about asparagus

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The ferny foliage of asparagus is decorative in summer but should not be cut for flower arranging. The plants need all their green tissue in order the produce a plentiful supply of succulent young shoots (‘spears’) in the following spring. It is these spears which are cut and then cooked to produce a dish which is a far cry from the soggy dwarfs sold in tins. Old wives’ tales abound – the ancients believed that the spears arose from rams’ horns buried in the soil, and many a modern-day gardener still believes that wide spacing, an annual heavy dressing of manure and a regular sprinkling of salt are all essential for top yields. One of our oldest crops, but there are new varieties and new ideas. Grow it if you have free-draining soil, adequate land which can be tied up for a decade or more…and patience – you will need to wait two years for the first good crop.

Plant facts
Use 1-year-old crowns. You can buy 2- or3-year-old crowns but they can be temperamental. Asparagus can be raised from seed but it will be 3 years before regular cropping can begin.
Seed sowing technique: Sow thinly 1in (2.5cm) deep in drills 1ft (30cm) apart. Thin to 6in (15cm) when seedlings are 3in (7.5cm) tall. Plant out largest plants in beds during the following spring.
Productive life: 8-20 years.
Expected yield per mature plant: 20-25 spears.
Approximate time between planting 1-year-old crowns and cutting: 2 years.
Ease of cultivation: Not easy – requires thorough soil preparation, space and regular hand weeding.

Soil facts
· Good drainage is essential – the soil type is much less important. Pick a sunny spot, sheltered from strong winds, and dig thoroughly in the autumn – incorporate a liberal dressing of well-rotted manure or compost. Liming will be necessary if the soil is very acid.
· Remove the roots of all perennial weeds during soil preparation. Leave the soil rough after digging – fork over in March and rake in Growmore fertilizer.

Planting
Keep roots covered under sacking until planting time – never let them dry out. Dig a trench 8in (20cm) deep and 12in (30cm) wide. At the bottom of the trench make a ridge 3in (7cm) tall and place the roots on top. Cover crowns with 2in (5cm) of sifted soil immediately after spreading out roots. Fill in trench gradually as plant grow – the bed should be level by autumn.

Calendar
· Plant crowns in early April if the soil is in good condition – delay for a couple of weeks of the weather is cold and wet. Trenches should be dug about 3ft (90cm) apart.
· Harvesting of the mature crop takes place over a 6-8 week period. To ensure the maximum harvest period, plant a mixed bed containing an early variety such as Connovers Colossal with a later variety such as Martha Washington.
Sowing time: April; can start mid March.
Planting time: Early April; Can extend from mid March to the end of April.
Cutting time: The last week in April to the first week in June; less usually from mid April to mid June.

Looking after the crop
· Keep the bed clean by hand weeding. Provide support for the stems if necessary and water during dry weather. Remove berries before they fall to the ground.
· In autumn cut down the ferny stems once they have turned yellow. The stumps should be 1-2in (3-5cm) above the surface.
· Before the spears appear in spring make a ridge of soil over each row with a draw hoe. Apply a surface dressing of Growmore fertilizer.
·
Harvesting
· Soon after planting the first spears will appear. On no account should these be cut – they must be left to develop into bushy fern-like stems.
· In the year after planting little or no cutting should take place. Some experts believe that the removal of a single spear per plant in May will do no harm – others believe that no growth at all should be removed at this stage.
· Cutting can begin in earnest in the second year after planting. As soon as the spears reach a height of 4-5in (10-13cm) they should be severed about 3in (7cm) below the soil surface. Use a long serrated kitchen knife or a special asparagus knife. Cut every day if necessary – never let the spears grow too tall before cutting.
· Stop cutting in early or mid June. All spears must now be allowed to develop into fern in order to build up their reserves for next year’s crop.

Varieties
The variety you are most likely to be offered is Connovers Colossal. This old favourite produces large, fine-flavoured spears and is especially suitable for sandy soil. The other old variety, Giant Mammoth, is more suitable for heavy land. In both cases the male plants are more productive than the female, berry-bearing ones.
Several other varieties have been introduced in recent years. There is Regal which was bred in Britain but most of the others have come from either the U.S. or France. They promise heavier yields and delicious flavour, but you must remember that some have not stood the test of time so one cannot comment on how long they will stay productive.
Connovers Colossal: The No. 1 variety, available as seed or crowns. It is a thick-stalked type which crops early and is excellent for freezing.
Giant Mammoth: You will find this variety in the textbooks but you will have to search for it in the seed catalogues. Perhaps your choice these days should be between Connovers Colossal and one of the others listed here.
Martha Washington: The best known of the U.S. varieties, this type and Mary Washington are the ‘old favourites’ in America. A heavy cropper, producing long spears until early June. One of its blessings is resistance to rust.
Minerve: Trials have shown that this French variety consistently outyields the English old favourites in the first few years after planting. The question remains – will it do so in 15 years’ time?
Sutton’s Perfection: A fine, well-established variety which is bought as crowns rather than seed. The plants have a good reputation for sturdiness.
Lorella: Another French variety which has shown great promise. The stems are claimed to be extra-thick and the total yields in trials have been very high.

Troubles
Asparagus Beetle
Violet Root Rot
Spindly Spears
Slugs
Frost
Rust
Wind Rock


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