This section is from the book "The Gardener V2", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
Asparagds-bed-making, like many other garden operations, ought not to be regulated by one uniform rule through the length and breadth of the land. It will be readily admitted that there is a great diversity of soils and subsoils, not only in districts wide apart, but in the same locality. I have seen Asparagus-beds in some districts made so nigh, that they stood above the natural level of the ground to the height of 1 foot and 18 inches, besides having ditches between each bed to the depth of 2 feet. What could be the ruling idea in making such beds I cannot take upon myself to say. In low situations where the subsoil is a tenacious clay, it is well to make the beds somewhat above the ground-level, so that the roots may have sufficient depth to extend, without penetrating an uncongenial subsoil. This may be well enough understood by those who have been accustomed to execute such work, but may not be sufficiently explicit to those who are beginners or amateurs, in behalf of whom, I conceive, ' The Gardener' takes a lively interest.
Although Asparagus is a native of this country - and being so, it is a hardy plant - it has often to put up with very indifferent culture and rough usage at the hands of those who would like to produce it in good usable condition without first making themselves acquainted with the details of preparing beds that will give satisfactory results. I have frequently seen Asparagus sown upon a piece of ordinary garden ground without any further preparation than that of merely digging it. Very seldom is a piece of ground found of sufficient depth and richness to grow the vegetable properly without any further preparation or addition. Indeed, to have Asparagus in a condition to be worth the room it occupies, the ground requires a very thorough and careful preparation, more so than in the case of any other vegetable. If the situation be low, with a tenacious subsoil, the ground should be deeply drained to begin with; for although Asparagus is found in its wild state growing near the seashore, where it of necessity receives plenty of moisture, it is always in light soil, where water passes freely off. Under such circumstances it never attains to the size and tenderness to which it is grown under liberal culture, and on account of which its delicate character is developed.
We have lifted it in its smaller and more wiry condition from the seaside, and grown it into good useful Asparagus the third year after planting it in rich, well-prepared soil.
The old way of making Asparagus-beds was in most cases to raise the beds a foot above the adjoining ground; and when the beds are of considerable width, there is no objection to thus elevating them. Some years ago I had the conducting of alterations and improvements in pleasure-grounds where the top-soil was of a rich loamy nature, and the subsoil approaching to what may be termed good brick earth; so that after removing the top-spit and reserving it for particular purposes, the lower soil was sufficiently good for ordinary shrubs. The top-spit, after lying in a heap for eighteen months, and having well worked into it twice its own bulk of strawy dung from an open yard where young horses had been fed, the whole was carefully turned over and mixed during summer; and in September and October this heap yielded the most abundant crop of Mushrooms I ever had anything to do with. There was no artificial spawning. In using this compost in preparing Asparagus-beds, about 15 inches of the common garden-soil was dug out, making the beds 4 feet wide.
A foot deep of the compost was put into the beds, after making sure of perfect drainage; then 4 inches of well-rotted dung, with a little of the natural soil that was turned out of the beds; the whole was thoroughly mixed together; and I then proceeded to plant. In a 4-feet bed leave a space of about 10 inches in the centre and stretch a line at each of the marks, then with a spade make a drill or opening from 7 to 8 inches deep, bringing the soil removed in so doing towards the sides of the bed. Having provided yourself with good healthy young plants - one or two year old - plant them perpendicularly at 6 inches apart in this opening, leaving the crowns just level with the soil. Press the soil firm to the roots. Indeed the whole bed should be well firmed down by treading before planting is commenced. Another row on each side of these two gives four lines, which are sufficient for a 4-feet bed. When all are planted, cover the crowns over with 2 inches of the common garden-soil. When this is finished, the beds will be 8 or 10 inches higher than the ordinary level, and they will ultimately sink to about 6 inches. When left higher than this, they are very liable to be injuriously affected by the heats and droughts of summer.
Beds thus prepared and planted yield good returns the second year after planting. Where Asparagus is required to force early, plants that are four to five years old are best for tins purpose. I Lave forced them when three years old, but prefer them a year or two older. When older, they are not so satisfactory, but are best when the roots are all in a nice, active, healthy state, and before any portion begins to decay. Where forcing is carried on, it is necessary to sow and plant a portion according to the demand every year. Asparagus should be sown in deep, rich, well-worked soil; chalky and gravelly soil, if possible, to be avoided. I have often found the roots of young plants 2 feet deep where the soil was good and well drained. It can never thrive where the roots are annually rotted by stagnant water, and it should always be guarded against. George Dawson.