Asparagus (Asparagus officionalis) is a popular vegetable today and was quite popular in the nineteenth century. The photograph above is of an antique variety, ‘Giant Asparagus’ an engraving from The Illustrated London News, dated 1851. An asparagus knife is shown alongside the plant. This year, I grew another old variety of asparagus from seed, ‘Connover’s Collosal’, dating to the second half of the nineteenth century. It is difficult to find plants of heirloom varieties of asparagus, so one has to start them from seed. However, the process is slow, as the plants take three to four years to reach the size for harvesting. (If too many shoots are cut from very young plants, productivity may be reduced, or the plants may die. But if the plants are allowed to become established, an asparagus bed will last twenty years or more, even up to fifty years!)
Late March into early April is an excellent time to start asparagus from seed. Use a sterile medium, cover the seed about 1/4 inch deep and place the pots in a warm location (77 degrees is optimum). The seeds should come up in about ten days. You may direct seed into a bed if soil temperatures are above 50 degrees, it will just take a little longer for the seeds to germinate. Asparagus plants begin to grow slowly and will not be ready to transplant out for about three or four months. Meanwhile you can prepare a bed for them. An ideal spot is in full sun with a bed large enough to accommodate the number of plants you need. It is usually recommended to plant five to six plants per person. Since the plants are perennial (USDA climate zones 4-9) they benefit from a well-prepared bed. Peter Henderson, in his book Gardening for Profit published in 1867, recommended planting transplants nine inches apart in rows three feet wide for commercial growers, or two feet wide for home gardeners.
Once you have established how many plants you need, you can make the planting bed. Henderson recommended trenching the bed two to three feet deep with about three inches of rotted manure mixed into the soil. A deep sandy loam is best for them as they are native to alluvial soils. Bernard Mc Mahon, in Mc Mahon’s American Gardener, published in 1857, recommended double digging two spades deep and placing several inches of rotted manure in the trench, then spreading another layer of rotted manure over the surface. He directed gardeners to mix this second layer of manure with the soil to a depth of eight to ten inches. My young plants, now a year old, have spears a little larger in diameter than a toothpick. The young plants may be grown in a temporary (sunny) rich bed for another year, then moved to their permanent location. Place the crowns of the plants two inches below the soil surface. Keep the beds weeded to ensure quick, even growth. Mc Mahon recommends three years from planting (which would be four years from sowing seed) before cutting can begin. Dress the bed every spring with rotted manure, bone meal and wood ashes.
If your family really enjoys asparagus, plant more than five plants per person; I plant twelve per person. If you plant two-year transplants, spread the roots out like the spokes of a wheel and cover with about one inch of prepared soil. Water well. As the plants grow, cover them with more soil until you have them two inches under. Do not use fresh manure as it will burn them and (heaven forbid) do not use chemical fertilizers, especially on newly planted asparagus. Wait two years to begin cutting. A summer mulch of three inches of straw is excellent, will protect the plants in winter and the spears will come up earlier in the spring if the ground is not frozen too deeply.
When you cut asparagus spears get them into the refrigerator right away or cook them immediately because they lose flavor as quickly as sweet corn does. Considering how expensive asparagus is, I find the start up work well worth while. Enjoy!