A few nights ago I sat on the couch, slippers on, glass in hand, and listened to a handyman on a lifestyle program tell lies. He was building a cubbyhouse, and at each stage of the 87-step process he assured viewers of the simplicity of the task. He used a half-dozen tools, as well as glue, rivets and paint, to fashion wood, metal, carpet, and rope into what looked like a small, functional home. Not simple. At all.
The thing I found irksome was his denial of the complexity of the task. Building something like this is tricky. Why not fess up to that? Do the producers think we’re only capable of handling things that are easy? Some things take time and effort, and they’re worth it.
Which brings me to asparagus. Growing this crop is enormously rewarding: it looks great, tastes better and is cheaper than the supermarket version, and is a good source of vitamin A, C, phosphorus and calcium. But it’s not as easy to grow as, say, mint. And since it lives for up to 25 years it’s a commitment.
Asparagus prefers a sunny bed of its own, and must have good drainage otherwise the deep roots will rot. It grows best from one-year-old crowns that you can buy from a nursery. Plant in winter to pick it in spring.
To plant, dig a trench no deeper than about 20cm. If you plant the crowns too deep you’ll get a smaller yield. Put some super phosphate fertiliser in the bottom of the trench then put the crowns right on top (they won’t burn). Cover with a sprinkling of compost. Plant the crowns about 40cm apart and if you’re planting more than one row leave at least 60cm between rows – the plants get quite large. Allowing some room for airflow also helps prevent fungal disease.
After planting, backfill and water thoroughly but don’t tamp the soil down. Spears should poke up through the loose soil in a week or so.
Harvesting can be fiddly. Ideally leave the plants for two years – don’t cut any spears. In the third year cut the spears when they are about 15cm long. But start slowly: harvest for two weeks the first season, then four weeks the next, then about eight thereafter. Don’t be tempted to overharvest if you’re in this for the long haul.
You can cut below the soil but it’s better to snap them above ground so you don’t damage emerging spears. If you leave them alone they’ll spread out at the tips and become ferny leaves. Stunning but inedible. You do need to cut the ferny bits off but wait until they become brown or you’ll get fewer spears. The ‘ferns’ photosynthesise and send energy to the crown where it is stored for the next year. Be careful when you finally do cut the leaves – they look feathery and delicate but become sharp when dry.
There’s more: asparagus perishes quickly so it should be picked in the morning, put into ice water then stored in the fridge. Not simple. Not straightforward. Not quick. But absolutely worth it.