Of this genus there are three or four species that are very useful and ornamental plants. The one having • the greatest commercial value is A. plumosus. There seems to be some confusion about the name of this species, or there are two varieties. English catalogues make a distinction and call one variety A. plumosus nanus. With us the one that was actually dwarf has been lost track of and the one that grows twenty feet high is still called nanus. This is evidently a misnomer.
Seed can be sown at any time. Sow in flats and cover with an eighth of an inch of leaf-mold or light soil and keep on a bench where the heat is not less than 60 degrees at night. It is well to be particular as to the source from which you get the seed. Imported seed frequently germinates poorly, but the home grown seed comes freely. We pot the seedlings into 2-inch pots, and if intended to plant in a permanent bed we first shift again into a 4-inch. A good, warm house suits it when young, but not a close, heavily shaded one.
An asparagus bed for the production of long strings should be on the ground. My own experience has given me a lesson on this point, and to use the words of Mr. W. H. Elliott, Brighton, Mass., our largest grower of this asparagus, "It should never be divorced from mother earth." One foot of soil on the floor of a lofty house will grow it for many years. Lake all its family, it flourishes best in rich soil; a good, heavy loam with a fourth or fifth of cow manure is the best compost for it, and in addition put a good dressing on the surface of the bed every midsummer. Although the same bed will last indefinitely, I think it more profitable to renew the bed every three or four years. The roof of the house should be at least ten feet above the surface of the bed or you will not get the full benefit of the growth. Specialists like Mr. Elliott have houses twice that height.
It is not only the long strings that are used. The short sprays are in great demand for mixing with cut flowers, particularly bunches of roses. While many short sprays can be cut from the planted beds, many plants are grown on side benches in six inches of soil or in 6-inch or 8-inch pots with the view of producing sprays only. The plants will, if vigorous, throw up the long running shoots, but by nipping off the tops of the shoots when eighteen to twenty-four inches long the production of branchlets is stimulated.
"We have found small plants of A. plumosus very useful for fern dishes, outlasting any of the ferns. For this purpose the plants are best kept in 3-inch pots, though for large arrangements of flowers and foliage bushy plants in 4-inch pots are most useful.
A. tenuissimus needs precisely the same treatment as A. plumosus, but it is not such a general favorite. Its very finely divided, graceful branchlets are, however, preferred by some above A. plumosus.
A. Sprengeri is a more recent introduction and comes from Abyssinia (the other species are from South Africa). It is a strong grower, forming a large clump of roots and crowns from which it sends out long, strong shoots covered on all sides with fine branchlets. In older plants there is an inclination to run up strong shoots which may climb, but the value and beauty of the plant is in the long, pendent growths. It is a strong feeder and requires an abundance of water and will grow and keep its color in the full sun; only from our hottest suns should it receive any artificial shading.
It is easily raised from seed, which is best sown in early spring. By the following winter the plants will give fine sprays. For hanging baskets it has scarcely a rival, either for the conservatory, the veranda or parlor window. The magnificent baskets that remain in good condition while hanging for months in a florist's window are evidence of its great adaptability to unfavorable surroundings. Three small plants put in a 10-inch basket in July or August will make fine ornamental baskets for winter, most useful for decoration or to sell at a good profit. While the Sprengeri lacks a little of the grace and fineness of plumosus and tenuissimus, it is for certain purposes their superior, and when the sprays are matured their lasting qualities are equal to the well known durability of plumosus. Depth of soil Sprengeri must have or it will soon be exhausted. We know a rose grower who grows it most profitably in some connecting houses beneath the gutters. He plants in English glass boxes which are eight inches wide, sixteen inches deep and two feet long. In these, with liberal liquid manure, he cuts large quantities of fine sprays for two and three years. There are other species of ornamental asparagus but they are not commercially valuable.