The asparagus bed

This spring I planted a tray of asparagus seeds. This was done more in hope than anticipation. I was fully prepared for my generative experiment to fail, as so many have failed over the years. But the seeds germinated, pushing up tiny, frail shoots under the plastic covering I had swathed the tray in that were recognisable as asparagus spears in miniature.

Eventually, I removed the plastic, and the tray moved from the spare room window sill, which faces west, the kitchen window sill, which faces south. There the shoots grew, put out feathers, keeled over with their own height relative to weight. More shoots grew. By mid-summer, it was clear that a number of heads had successfully been generated. And still the tray sat on the window sill, waiting to be planted.

I have long wanted an asparagus bed. My parents inherited an overgrown bed with the house in New York’s mid-Hudson Valley that they purchased when I was six. Carefully nurtured, it produced prolific annual crops. My first taste of asparagus was fresh picked, steamed and dipped in hot melted butter. Few gustatory memories have ever matched it. Over the years, I have done a lot of cooking with asparagus. One of my favourite quick comfort dishes is involves asparagus, beans and noodles cooked in a satay-inspired peanut sauce. Asparagus tart is a perennial summer favourite and I love a good asparagus soup, although never feel that shop-bought asparagus does it justice.

So growing my own asparagus was always an aspiration for when I had a garden large enough. Because asparagus really does need its own bed. Once established, they fill the space, and as a perennial plant that takes years to establish, they don’t like to be moved. This garden has finally offered enough space, and Matt quickly built the three raised beds that form the vegetable patch. I equally quickly filled them to bursting. There was no room there for the asparagus.

But there was room for a new bed, set at right angles in the corner where the path from the barn starts to curve up hill towards the house, past the bramble patch and the Scots pine. For the past few years the space has been home to the piles of wood we have chopped and pruned while they awaited chipping. This year, after some early summer chipping, it was staked, holes were dug for fence posts, the turfs lifted, a path between it and the next bed over excavated, with the soil dumped on the bed itself.

Written like this, the process sounds brisk, efficient even. The reality was extremely slow, with long gaps between stages. Life happened to us with some speed and intensity this summer, and progress on the asparagus bed suffered in consequence. By mid-August, the post holes were still being dug and we were going away on holiday. The tray of seedlings had been moved outside to enjoy the sunshine and be watered alongside the pots. I began to wonder if I would have to get rid of them and start again next year as I couldn’t imagine they would take kindly to over-wintering in the tray.

After our holiday, the new school year with all its attendant busyness overtook us. Time for building the asparagus bed was all too often reallocated to driving the garden assistants to non-gardening related activities. But I was determined that this particular job was going to get done. My plans for digging over the large bed by the driveway were going to have to be put on hold. But with some advice and assistance from Matt, particularly around placing posts and attaching the panel to raise the bed, I could at least complete the asparagus bed.

In the end, the final stages were fitted in to snatched hours over several weeks. Transferring a bin-and-a-half of well-rotted compost took place one afternoon when the thought of more emails on a sunny day proved too much. Matt finished the digging in when I had to run off to take the small garden assistant to a riding lesson. But finally it was done, at least the bed for planting; Matt still had some windbreaks and gates to add to incorporate it into the veg patch fully.

The problem was that we were running out of time. Autumn storms had already started to sweep in, battering house and garden, and I have been tidying away the pots. I was also away this past weekend, leaving Matt in charge of the parental taxi service, a job that leaves little time for the garden. So, last Wednesday morning, as soon as I had dropped the large gardening assistant at the train station, I raced home, pulled on my wellies and took the seedlings down to the new bed for planting.

Over the next couple of hours I planted seven crowns in two rows, spaced 18″ apart. Planting asparagus is labour intensive. I dug a trench, added compost, built a ridge along the trench, carefully teased about the crown roots, placed them along the ridge, mixed more compost in with the spoil and filled in the trench. Then I repeat for a second row. The results may not look terribly impressive in the photographs, but it was the most satisfying morning’s work I have had in a long time.

I may have left all of this too late. According to the RHS, asparagus crowns should be planted in June and established crowns divided and replanted in March. October doesn’t figure. But my optimistically planted seedlings have fulfilled my aspirations for them so far and have survived their summer of benign neglect. They will need at least another two years to establish themselves in their new home. In the meantime, I will feed, weed and water them and continue to live in hope.

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