Asparagus, often corrupted in country districts to sparrow (or sparrer!) grass, is the old plant Asparagus officinalis, which has been known for thousands of years, grows wild in some parts of Britain, and was forced for market in this country upwards of two centuries ago.
It is often looked upon as a rich man's vegetable, and where the natural conditions are against it possibly the production of a crop is not economical. Given fairly favourable circumstances, however, it yields well with very little trouble, and I know of excellent beds on allotments.
Asparagus undoubtedly likes a well-drained, rather light and porous soil. It dislikes clay, and abhors stagnant moisture. It appreciates a saline atmosphere. On deep, sandy loams near the sea it thrives exceedingly well. It may be, and is, well grown inland, but it is not so easy to get a heavy crop on stiff as on light soils. On tenacious, ill-drained land it is almost essential to raise the beds above the surface.
Asparagus may be grown from seed with ease, and the only drawback to the plan is that the plants are not strong enough to cut from under three years, and it is best to allow four. The seed may be. sown in April, in a drill 1 inch deep, and the plants thinned. In the following spring they may be transplanted to the beds.
It is a good plan to allow two rows to a bed, planting 1 foot from the edge at each side, and allowing 2 feet in the centre. This means a bed 4 feet wide. The stools may be 18 inches apart in the rows. It is a common and good plan to form a small ridge of soil where the rows are to be, set the stools on it, spread the fibrous roots well out on each side, and cover the crowns 4 inches deep.
Those who want to cut Asparagus a year after planting must procure three or four year old crowns. These are clumps of growing points and fibrous roots, 6 inches or more across. If planted in showery weather in spring, they will soon be established. They may be procured from nurserymen or seedsmen. These crowns are rather expensive, but those who want to have a bed in bearing very quickly do not always let the cost stand in the way.
The life of an Asparagus bed is a very uncertain quantity. I have known beds very elaborately made, with faggots or rubble for drainage, soil well cultivated, and alleys lined out with geometrical accuracy, yet failure has followed. And I have known the plants "thrown in," as gardeners say, and the bed succeed. In these circumstances I will draw attention to a few points which seem to me to have a rather important bearing on the question.
In the first place, rubble and faggots can only be required in wet, sticky soil; they would be out of place, and harmful, in a soil that was naturally drained.
A young bed should be cut from with restraint. A few of the earliest shoots should be allowed to run up untouched, to encourage root action. Hard cutting, it must be remembered, has a tendency to cripple the rootstocks. No cutting should be practised after the middle of June.
There should be no eagerness to clear off the top growth in autumn. To tear it out before it is thoroughly ripe means injuring the latent buds in the soil. If an objection is raised that leaving the shoots to mature means self seeding and a bed full of young growths, I reply by pointing to the old beds of half a century or more's standing, which often flourish under just such conditions.
It is a regular practice to mulch Asparagus beds in autumn. Often good follows, but sometimes, I think, harm. Rank manure fresh out of the yard is too wet. If manure is used it should be dry and well decayed, so that it can be crumbled up and mixed with burnt refuse, thus forming an ideal top-dressing. Near the sea quantities of seaweed are often heaped on to the beds. Such beds are, however, usually well drained; moreover, the salt in the weed is beneficial.
The spring dressing of salt, which it is orthodox to supply, some times does good and sometimes harm. It does good in light, well-drained soil; it does harm, often if not always, in stiff, wet land. Generally speaking, where salt is beneficial, one-fourth the quantity of nitrate of soda or sulphate of ammonia is more so.
Fig. 46. An Asparagus Knife.
It should be remembered that an Asparagus bed in full bearing is putting a considerable strain on the resources of the soil, therefore weeds should not be tolerated. Moreover, a little liquid manure may be applied occasionally, either from natural sources or made by dissolving 1/2 oz. each of superphosphate and nitrate of soda in 1 gallon of water. A fortnightly soaking with this works wonders.
The forcing of Asparagus is not a troublesome business, but it is hardly one for the person who has to cut his cloth up carefully, as the forced roots have to be thrown away after the crop is done. Roots to be forced may be lifted in November, packed close together on a 6-inch coating of light, rich soil over a hotbed, covered with soil, and watered.
Most seedsmen offer about four varieties of Asparagus, namely, Connover's Colossal, Early Battersea, Early Purple Argenteuil, and Early White Argenteuil. The first is one of the best. The Asparagus usually thought best in British gardens is that about as thick as one's finger, with a green tip a couple of inches long or so, cut a matter of 3 inches below the surface, the lower part being white and hard.