This section is from the book "Commercial Gardening Vol4", by John Weathers (the Editor). Also available from Amazon: Commercial Gardening, A Practical & Scientific Treatise For Market Gardeners.
The Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) is a wild plant in Essex and Lincolnshire and other parts of England, and is cultivated for the fat and fleshy young stems. These are made up into bundles, 1000 to 1700 of which can be obtained from an acre of ground, the average weight of a bundle being about 17 oz.
Asparagus has perhaps touched the popular imagination more than any other. There has been an enormous increase in the production of it in recent years, with the result to the producer that the price is reduced to half what it was. If the methods of cultivation had not been revolutionized in the direction of saving expense, to grow Asparagus now would be a losing game. The directions in an old gardening book for laying down an Asparagus bed read like laying the foundations for a castle, and indeed, even now, one meets gardening enthusiasts who talk of making an Asparagus bed as of the event of a lifetime.
The advent of keen competition quickly dismissed all such ideas to the limbo of the outworn, and along with them the 6-ft. beds with double rows, the 5-ft. beds with single rows, and the laborious spitting and spade landing of a quarter of a century ago.
The Asparagus is a sea-shore plant and prefers deep sandy soil with moisture and good drainage, such as is found in the neighbourhood of Colchester, or Hersham in Surrey. It requires warm nights and sunshine to obtain the maximum crop from the stools; such cool sunless summers as those of 1909 and 1910 mean that the stools do not exert themselves to anything like their best. The extension of the cultivation of Asparagus has taken it to soils that can in no sense be classed as ideal for it, and as the process continues it must be presumed that some success is attained. At the same time it cannot be denied that the course open to the least risk to the cultivator is to devote his energies to those crops for which the land he is working is most suited.
Asparagus, even when cultivated on modern methods, with plough instead of spade, is an expensive crop, and can only give satisfaction when done with care and judgment, and under conditions favourable to produce of good grade. First-class Asparagus still meets a ready demand; mediocre finds much competition; inferior finds itself thrown upon a cold and very critical world.
When it is determined to put down some Asparagus, the plot chosen should receive careful cleaning and good manuring for two years, the drainage should be overhauled and the bottom well broken.
The plants had better be raised from seed sown in March of the previous year, in drills 12 in. apart. As the seeds are a long time germinating, and when they first come through the young plants are very difficult to distinguish, it is well to mix with the Asparagus seed something like Radish or Spinach, which comes up quickly, so that the place where the drills are is marked soon enough to get one hoeing before the Asparagus is up, or weeds will be a trouble all the summer.
Good sorts to grow are Connover's Colossal (American), Palmetto, and Argenteuil Early (French). Four or five pounds of seed will be sufficient to plant an acre.
Planting time is the end of March, when the plants should be forked out and carefully separated to single crowns. The land where they are to be planted should, after being ploughed, be balked up with the furrows open 3 ft. 6 in. apart. The bottom of the furrow should be broken with a horse hoe and then levelled.
The plants are laid in the bottom of the furrow, either with their roots spread out all round, or laid on the side with the roots all pointing the same way along the furrow. After the plants are laid in they are covered with 1 1/2 in. of mould raked in with a hoe from the side, and then are well trodden in. The middles may now be cropped. It is well not to be too greedy in cropping the middles, or the growth of the young Asparagus plants may be checked. It is well, also, not to put in a crop that needs going over often, like Runner Beans, because then the young Asparagus runs great risk of being trampled on. The best is a crop like Mangold or Beet that does not come to harvest until the Asparagus has made its summer growth.
It goes without saying that he who would establish a profitable plant of Asparagus must make up his mind to keep the weeds down from the first. Probably as the summer advances it will be seen that some of the plants have failed to develop. A gap in an Asparagus row is an expensive thing, and it is worth going to some trouble to get these gaps filled up, A good plan is to plant something that will stand all the winter, like a Leek, in each gap, on the spot where the Asparagus plant ought to be. This is done, not for what the plants thus planted will bring in, but in order to serve as a mark that will indicate in the spring, when all traces of the Asparagus above ground are obliterated, where each gap is. Plants raised by fresh seed sown in the spring can then be easily inserted in the gaps. Some recommend planting two-year- and even three-year-old plants. It will be found better practice to plant yearling plants as described above.
The first year after planting, the mould on the Asparagus crowns can be increased to 3 or 4 in. It must not be forgotten that an Asparagus crown rises as it grows, it never gets deeper than when planted.
ASPARAGUS BEING SOLD AT SMITHFIELD MARKET, EVESHAM.
Photo. J. Udale.
RUNNER BEANS PACKED IN BAGS FOR MARKET.
Photo. W. J. Vasey.
When the year for cutting comes, all the soil that has been heaped up between the rows of Asparagus can be turned on to it by the plough or the fork, the hollow that was where the row is will now be in the alley, where cutters will walk. If the soil is at all inclined to be lumpy it must be fined down and left loose. Unbroken clods or large stones will cause the buds to be deflected in their upward course and make "crooks". The best way to effect this where the breadth is too great for the fork is to make a tool that will carry tines on a crooked back running on wheels in the alleys and pulled by a pony.
The soil that this process pulls down into the alleys can be put up again by running an earth plough up them with the mould boards set wide apart. Some trouble will be experienced in keeping the beds free of weeds during the summer. A great deal will be saved if the surface of the beds is left rough until the weeds are just coming through, then if a wire-toothed rake is run over them in dry weather it will fine the surface of the beds and destroy the weeds at the same time.