From early March until August this vegetable may be found on our city markets, and the forced crop is available to some extent throughout the winter. Nearly everybody enjoys this vegetable. Formerly it was regarded as a luxury; now it is a necessity. Notwithstanding the large increase in acreage, thousands of towns and small cities are poorly supplied with this delicious and wholesome vegetable.
The flavor and quality of asparagus may be preserved remarkably well by canning. Immense quantities are grown for this purpose, especially in California and on Long Island. For canning blanched "grass" is preferred, and large size of shoots counts for just as much in getting good prices as when they are sold on our markets. The factories often purchase by weight, paying from $80 to $200 a ton.
Nurserymen and seedsmen catalog many kinds, but there are no complete botanical descriptions of American varieties. It is doubtful whether we have more than three or four distinct varieties, although there are doubtless many strains showing more or less variation.
Palmetto is unquestionably the leading American variety. A large proportion of our growers claim that no argument can be advanced for planting anything else. It is prolific, producing large shoots of good quality. It originated in the South, and is generally popular in the southern states, but it is largely planted in all other parts of the United States. The plants are more resistant to rust than any other variety, and this, undoubtedly, is the main reason for its popularity.
Argenteuil is a French variety, planted extensively around Paris and to a considerable extent in the United States. It has attracted wide attention in this country, and has given excellent results on many farms. Argenteuil has not done well on soils containing much clay or silt. There are two types, known as the Early and the Late Argenteuil.
Conover's Colossal was originated by Abraham Van Sicklen of Long Island and introduced by S. B. Con-over, a produce merchant of New York. It is the oldest and best known American variety, but has been supplanted very largely by newer varieties.
Barr's Mam moth was originated by Crawford Barr of Pennsylvania. It is regarded as an excellent variety and finds ready sale on the Philadelphia market.
Dreer's Eclipse is fairly popular, and is valued for its large and tender shoots.
Columbian Mammoth White, introduced by D. M. Ferry in 1893, is a favorite with some growers on account of the large, light-colored shoots.
Other varieties planted to some extent are Donald's Elmira, Hub and Moore's Cross-bred.
The asparagus plant seems to be well adapted to all temperate regions. While the most extensive plantations are usually at low altitudes and near large rivers or large bodies of water, their success is probably due more to favorable soil conditions than to climatic influences. This crop has been grown successfully in all parts of the United States, regardless of diversified climatic conditions.
Asparagus is grown successfully on a great variety of soils. It is generally admitted, however, that the deep, rich, moist, sandy loams provide the best conditions, although alluvial soils are valued. In the large plantations of Orange County, Cal., peat mixed with sand has given excellent results. Shoots of enormous size are produced in this region. But whatever the texture of the soil is, asparagus demands a liberal supply of humus, good drainage, also an abundant and constant supply of moisture. In a noted plantation of New Jersey the water table is only 3 feet from the surface. With this never-failing supply of water in co-operation with a rich sandy soil the results are highly satisfactory. Sandy soils are especially important for the growing of blanched asparagus, because it is very difficult to produce straight shoots and also troublesome to ridge and cut under ground in heavy, clay soils. Stones interfere seriously with the growth of the shoots, prevent thorough tillage, make ridging difficult and are especially annoying when cutting the shoots beneath the surface of the ground. Southern, southeastern and southwestern aspects are preferred by experienced growers, because they produce earlier crops than northern slopes. They also suffer less from drouth, and the soil is not transported as much by driving winds.
The most successful asparagus growers of the old world have for centuries practiced seed selection. The experts of several hundred years ago may have possessed limited knowledge of the laws of plant breeding, but they evidently realized the importance of careful selection, and knew enough to select seed that would produce spears of enormous size. In the United States the growers who far excel the average in net returns to the acre invariably use selected seed, which they consider as important as high fertility and thorough tillage.
Large size and superior quality count for more than anything else in securing remunerative prices. These objects, therefore, should be paramount in the mind of the grower who would select his own seed. Vigor of stock is also essential, and it may be an advantage to take earliness into consideration.
Experienced gardeners seem to agree that the best seed is not produced until the plants are at least four years old. A greater age is sometimes recommended. The prospective plants for seed production are studied carefully for a season or several seasons, perhaps, and the observant grower finally decides upon certain ones that approach his ideals. They are free from rust, or practically so, the shoots are large and surpass the average plant in number. To be even more accurate, and certain of getting seed from the most prolific plants, some of the most promising specimens may be marked and numbered and the cuttings of each weighed for a season or two. It is just as important to choose high-grade male plants as it is to choose the best female plants. There may be several female plants to one male and they should be in close proximity to each other to insure thorough pollination. A stake should be driven at each plant to serve as a mark the following spring. The spears from all other plants in the field are cut and marketed as usual and only two or three stalks retained on each breeding plant. This limitation of stalks will produce stronger plants and larger seeds. Six to 10 inches of the tops and the ends of the branches should also be cut off to favor the development of better seed on the lower part of the plant, and if there is a profuse setting of berries, it is an advantage to remove some from the extremities of the plant.