Not everything that’s good for you tastes mouthwateringly delicious but — when properly prepared, of course — asparagus is bliss.
Contrary to popular belief, this ‘luxury’ vegetable, is surprisingly easy to grow — even in and around Karachi — if, that is, you have the necessary patience and dedication necessary to encourage it to thrive and crop in abundance.
You will probably have to grow asparagus from seed as, unless you can convince an existing grower to part with some young plants or adult ‘crowns’ — as the root mass is called — you are highly unlikely, particularly in the south of our climatically diverse country, to find any for sale in a nursery. Sourcing the seed isn’t always an easy matter either but, I promise, with perseverance and aside from sometimes problematic internet sales, it can be found.
Seed is best started off, in plains and coastal regions, during late autumn or very early spring — only in late spring in much cooler northern regions — in meticulously prepared seedbeds or pots/trays of well-draining, top quality, preferably organic, compost. The seedbed is going to be in use for quite some time, so it is essential to prepare it properly.
Prepare a seedbed by marking off a suitably sunny spot, digging it over, removing any stones and other debris in the process. Plus — this is important — taking out all weeds, including those troublesome, often deep-rooted, perennial ones. Asparagus cannot stand weeds.
Once you establish an asparagus bed, you’ll be harvesting the produce for 10 years or more
Next, mix in lots of organic compost, homemade if you have it and/or completely rotted down, again organic is best, manure, breaking up any lumps as you go. When this is done, rake the bed level and you are ready to sow.
Soak seed for approximately 48 hours prior to sowing it. Soaking assists germination which, otherwise, can be sporadic and, if the seed isn’t completely fresh, poor.
Sow individual seed one inch (2.5 cm) deep, six inches (15 cm) apart, in rows about 18 inches (45 cm) apart. Keep the seedbed damp but not overly wet, otherwise the seeds may rot and emerging seedlings will develop rot at their base, in which case all of your hard work will have been for nothing.
Asparagus would much rather be in dry soil than soil which is too wet: the latter results in a whole host of problems, usually fatal ones!
If sowing seed in pots/trays, try to allow seeds at least three inches (7.5 cm) space all round and, when seedlings are about three inches (7.5 cm) tall, carefully, trying not to break any of their fragile roots, pot them on in to individual 10-inch diameter (25 cm) pots. Here they should remain until spring of the following year — or at 18 months old if autumn-sown — when they can be transplanted into their designated growing area.
Asparagus crowns/plants can live and be productive for up to 10 years in the Pakistani climate, as long as good, clean, growing conditions are maintained. Keeping the crowns/plants completely free of weeds at all times is essential for their general health, productivity and longevity, which is why so much care should be taken in preparing their growing final area.
Do this exactly the same as for preparing the asparagus seedbed, keeping in mind that asparagus prefers a soil pH between 6.5 and 7.5. As previously mentioned, plant out in early spring.
Space the crowns/plants at a distance of 18 inches (45 cm) apart in rows 18 inches (45 cm) apart. Handle the crowns/plants with care during the transplanting procedure — the roots really are delicate and, if damaged, transplantation shock can be severe. Water well and keep watered during dry weather. Never allow the soil to become waterlogged or the crowns/plants will rot.
Weed the bed regularly, lay mulch around, but not touching, the crowns/plants, before the hot weather arrives, renewing/topping it up as necessary.
The crowns/plants naturally die back each autumn/winter, shoots emerging again in spring. However, tempting the shoots/’spears’ appear, do not, under any circumstances, harvest a single one until the crowns/plants are three years old. To harvest before this is to weaken the precious crown/plant and prevent it from ever achieving its full cropping potential. Patience, hard as this may be, really is the key to successful asparagus production.
Harvesting usually continues for six to 10 weeks, after which emerging shoots should be left to grow on up to a beautiful four to five feet tall. Ban any flower arrangers in the family from cutting as much as a single ferny frond from the crowns/plants, not matter how much they plead; the asparagus needs its fronds more than they do!
Finally, there are both male and female asparagus crowns/plants and a packet of seeds will give you some of each. Male crowns/plants produce fatter spears/shoots than female ones whose spears are much thinner.
With spear production being the intention, especially if space is at a premium, it is preferable to remove female plants, planting males in their place as soon as females can be identified. This, luckily, is a simple matter as they smother themselves in bright red seed, containing berry-style fruits.
If you have the space, and the equally important dedication and patience, give asparagus growing a try — the matchless, succulent and drool-worthy end result makes it so worthwhile.
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Published in Dawn, EOS, November 29th, 2020