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This quote from Hector Hugh Munro, a British political
journalist, not only is right on the point, but it also
reveals the haughty culinary company in which asparagus
has found itself over the centuries.
Asparagus is deemed a delicacy by many palettes today
and is known as the ‘Food of Kings’. The
tasty spears we consume were originally bred from plants
that were native to central Europe and western and central
Asia. They were also popular in ancient times in Greece,
Rome and Egypt. King Louis XIV of France (1638–1715)
was a great fan of this member of the lily family. It
has been noted in various history books that he encouraged
production of asparagus in Europe during his reign.
He even went so far as to construct special glass houses
so that he could enjoy the taste of asparagus all year
long. Julius Caesar and Thomas Jefferson are also noted
as having a liking for asparagus.
Asparagus derived its name from the Greek word meaning
to ‘sprout’ or ‘shoot’. It has
been a cultivated plant since Roman times, and before
that the ancient Greeks ate it from the wild. In Rome,
asparagus was so sought after that they assembled ‘asparagus
fleets’, whose occupation was to search the entire
empire for the best asparagus spears and bring them
back to Rome. Given all the attention that it has received
throughout history you would think this small speared
plant would have a big head (like cabbage).
Asparagus, for all its great taste, was originally
a medicinal plant. It was thought to be the answer for
a number of ailments, including toothaches, bee stings,
heart trouble and edema. Claims were made that it was
an excellent laxative and diuretic, and could even be
taken as a sedative. Now that is multi-tasking!
main varieties of asparagus chosen by most home gardeners
were ‘Martha Washington’, ‘Viking’
and ‘Jersey Knight’. Currently, variations
of the Jersey line are the ones that most gardeners
are planting. Ensure the variety you choose exhibits
some resistance to fusarium crown rot, which is the
number one disease of asparagus on the prairies.
Asparagus loves well-drained, sandy loam soil. Clay
soil can be used in asparagus production but should
have plenty of organic matter incorporated to improve
drainage. A fertilizer high in phosphorus should be
added the summer before planting, but asparagus should
not be fertilized in the year it is planted. In the
following years the plant will require a large amount
of nitrogen in proportion to phosphorus and potassium.
About one inch per week is required for optimal spear
growth. Watering should be continued into the fall,
long after the cutting season is over. Asparagus needs
to grow to produce food energy, which is then stored
in the root tissue prior to the dormant season.
There are two main avenues to consider when planting.
One is to plant the seed directly in the soil (see table
A) and the other is to plant the crowns. Asparagus crowns
are simply asparagus seeds that have been previously
planted and formed a root mass. These crowns can be
purchased from nurseries and garden centres, and will
reduce the time between planting and harvest. Two-year-old
asparagus crowns are preferable since that means there
is only a further wait of two years until full harvest
The rows of crowns should be planted approximately
1.5 m (5 ft.) apart and the plants should be spaced
30 cm (12 in.) in the row. This allows for manual weed
control and also increases the vigour of the spears.
Plant the crowns in a 10 to 13 cm deep (4–5 in.)
hole, and then lightly cover the crown with 5 cm (2
in.) of soil. When the spears begin to emerge, lightly
cover them with soil and repeat until the hole has been
This is the tricky part about asparagus. The plants
are generally not harvested until three years after
they were started from seed. Even then, the harvest
should not last any longer than two weeks. A longer
harvest than that may weaken the plants and cause stress
which can result in smaller spears the following year.
From year four and beyond, harvest can go from 6 to
8 weeks. It can start as early as the beginning of May
and go until the end of June. It is best not to harvest
the spears into July as the plant needs adequate time
to grow and allow food to be stored in the roots for
the following year. Again late-cutting will weaken the
plant and affect spear size.
45 ml (3 tbsp) chopped onions
30 ml (2 tbsp) butter
1000 ml (4 cups) asparagus, cut into
1 inch pieces
250 ml (1 cup) milk 375 ml (1 1/2
cups) corn flakes
2 eggs, slightly beaten
5 ml (1 tsp) salt
45 ml (3 tbsp) flour
500 ml (2 cups) milk
5 ml (1 tsp) mustard
5 ml (1 tsp) salt
10 ml (2 tsp) chopped chives
10 ml (2 tsp) chopped pimentos
210 ml (14 tbsp) sliced mushrooms
Preheat oven to 375°.
Fry onions in butter until tender.
Mix with remaining casserole ingredients,
turn into baking dish and bake until
set, approx 50 minutes.
Melt butter in saucepan. Stir in flour
until well blended. Blend in milk
and cook, stirring constantly, until
thickened. Stir in mustard and salt
until well mixed; fold in chives,
pimento and mushrooms. Heat through,
serve over asparagus custard.
Cut the spear with a sharp knife about one inch below
the soil line. This should provide you with edible spears
that are roughly 15–20 cm (6–8 in.) long.
Be careful when cutting the spears that you do not cut
any other part of the crown. To ensure that this does
not happen, some people prefer to snap the spears off
at ground level.
Once harvested, asparagus does not store well. The spears
should be removed and stored in a cool, moist area.
If the spears are becoming limp, cut 2.5 cm (0.5 in.)
off the base of the stalks and stand them up in 2.5
cm of warm water. That should help to straighten them
Since the crowns are planted fairly deeply in the ground,
over-wintering is generally not a problem. Allowing
the spears to remain upright and leaving trash on the
ground will also provide some cover. If you are concerned
at all with winterkill, you can put 7.5–10 cm
(3–4 in.) of mulch over the plot as well.
If you thought that green asparagus was as good as it
gets, welcome to the pièce de résistance
for this perennial. White asparagus tends to be milder
and more tender, with a slight nutty flavour, when compared
to its green counterpart.
Growing white asparagus isn’t much more difficult
either, although it requires just a bit more attention.
The white appearance of the spear is due to the fact
that it is not grown in sunlight. The spears are generally
covered with a black plastic drum, black plastic or
simply soil. This allows the spears to grow while avoiding
the sunlight. As the spears begin to protrude, they
are then covered up again by more soil. If you can actually
find white asparagus in the stores, it normally fetches
two to three times the price of traditional green asparagus.
To be even more exotic, try purple asparagus. Varieties
such as ‘Purple Passion’ and ‘Viola’
are purple on the outside while retaining their green
interior. If you are interested in purple asparagus,
start searching now as these varieties are hard to find.
As with most perennial vegetables, the hardest part
is getting started, finding a spot that can be used
year after year and which is suitable for the crop.
After the work has been done, asparagus graciously rewards
your efforts every May and June for quite a few years.
And as you are enjoying asparagus finger sandwiches
fresh from the patch, you will thank yourself for the
inspiration, not to mention the time and effort, of
planting this patch those few short years ago.