This section is from "The Horticulturist, And Journal Of Rural Art And Rural Taste", by P. Barry, A. J. Downing, J. Jay Smith, Peter B. Mead, F. W. Woodward, Henry T. Williams. Also available from Amazon: Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste.
Asparagus is one of the most generally esteemed esculents that our gardens produce, and in our climate very easily brought to the highest state of perfection. But how seldom do we see even a tolerably grown article in the markets or on the tables of public or private houses. Nine-tenths of it is about as large as a pen-holder, and as stringy as a hemp rope, instead of being "as thick as the thumb, and brittle as glass." A late number of the London Gardeners' Chronicle touches upon this matter, and brings forward clearly and forcibly the main points on which successful management depends. First, abundance of manure applied at the proper time. Second, preservation of the stems and leaves during the whole season of growth, and, if possible, the prevention of seeding. Third, not to cut until the roots have become large and strong, and then to cut only every other year. Fourth, to keep the roots near the surface in order to give them full benefit of atmospheric heat, that the growth may be strong and rapid, and therefore green and succulent. Nobody now-a-days thinks of eating the stringy, blanched portion of Asparagus shoots.
The article referred to is as follows:
"That information upon this point is needed the poor samples so continually produced at tables where excellence is to be looked for sufficiently indicates. But we are far from thinking that M. Courtois has exhausted the subject; on the contrary, he misses that which, to private persons at least, is most important - the mode of obtaining the largest and most succulent, and therefore the best Asparagus for table.
"Many years ago the manner in which the great Biscayan Asparagus is obtained was pointed out by a most intelligent correspondent in these columns. Some of the details of the Spanish process were, however, unsuitable to English circumstances, and we believe it had never been imitated in this country. Another method by which enormous succulent shoots were obtained in Suffolk was briefly published in the Journal of the Horticultural Society. That plan is described in the following words: 'I set out my bed as follows: 60 feet long; 6 feet wide; 4 feet deep. The earth was all taken out and laid on one side the bed. I then placed at the bottom, 2 feet deep salt ooze, from the banks of the Alde; 1 1/2 foot deep of the river weed (a long grass). Two feet of the best vegetable mold was then placed on the top, and the young plants set out at 18 inches distance all over the bed.' They were then buried in a few inches of rich soil.
"Leaving the reader to compare this mode of forming a bed with the French and common English methods, we would invite attention to the following considerations, which greatly concern gardeners, now that the season of forming Asparagus beds is at hand. The grower of this vegetable ought to recollect that the two points of excellence in it are first size, and sound succulence. It should be thick as the thumb and brittle as glass. To secure this result two things are indispensable; it must be produced by very vigorous plants, and it must grow very fast. These two cardinal points must be considered separately.
"Its vigor will depend upon the soil in which it grows, the quantity of manure it receives, and its general treatment. The long stout succulent fangs, or roots, of an Asparagus are so tender that they will not form freely in soil which offers much resistance. Nature places it in its wild state among sea sand, the most yielding of all earthly substances, never becoming dry, never remaining loaded with stagnant water, but at every tide receiving a supply of the saline particles that constitute an essential part of the food of the plant. Under such circumstances the roots meet with no obstruction to their full development. There is, however, no apparent necessity for sand; what is really wanted is some soft material, moistened with salt water, and so placed that while it is always wet, it will never become water-logged. How unlike this is to the hard, coarse earth, so often used for this plant we need not say.
But the natural Asparagus is never large; on the contrary, it is more like what is technically called 'sprue.' The cause of that is, we presume, to be sought in the want on the sea shore of the powerful manure on which it greedily feeds, when it can obtain it. The wild Asparagus has all that it requires for mere health; but it is ill fed; it differs from the fine garden plant just as lean kine differ from fat bullocks. Feeding makes all, or great part of the difference. Experience shows that no manure is too strong for this plant; its great spongy roots can take up any quantity with advantage, if applied at the right season. That season is after it has begun to move in the spring; applied at any other time the fat oozy slime which it loves is absorbed without being assimilated, and soon produces a fatal rot in the roots. Beside this, the plant must be cherished during summer while not under the knife, for it is only thus that its vital powers can be much increased. No exuberance of growth in the Asparagus stems can be regarded as excessive; nothing should be done to check it; every branch that a plant is able to form should be anxiously preserved, and if any means can be used to prevent the formation of berries, which we must remember is a process of exhaustion, these means should be adopted, provided always the little thread-like green leaves are in no way injured.
Small as they are they conduce to the strength of the Asparagus, as much as its broad leaves to a forest tree. Such precautions having been taken, great buds, as large as acorns, will appear in clusters from the crown of the roots, and out of them will rise gigantio shoots in the succeeding year. All these precautions will, however, fail if the Asparagus is called upon to bear a crop before it is old enough. Early bearing ruins plants as much as animals, and inevitably brings on premature debility. The older it is before the cutting begins, the stronger, other circumstances being equal, will it be found. The exhaustion attending the production of a crop one year should also be made good by resting the Asparagus during the next year. In other words, giant Asparagus can not be looked for if the bed is cut oftener than every other year.