Asparagus officinalis Asparagus is a liliaceous plant of perennial duration, and it demands more generous treatment than the majority of Kitchen Garden crops. Under favourable conditions it improves with age to such an extent as to justify the best possible cultivation. Plantations that have

stood and prospered for twenty or even thirty years are not uncommon, but a fair average term is ten years, after which it is generally advisable to break up a bed, the precaution being first taken to secure a succession bed on fresh soil well prepared for the purpose. Plantations are made either by sowing seeds or from transplanted roots; and although roots are extremely sensitive when moved, success can, as a rule, be insured by special care and prompt action, assuming that the proper time of year is chosen for the operation. The advantage of using roots is the saving of time, and in most gardens this is an important consideration. Fortunately roots may be planted almost as safely when two or three years old as at one year. Soil.--Asparagus will grow in any soil that is well cultivated; a deep rich sandy loam being especially suitable. Calcareous soil is by no means unfavourable to Asparagus; still, a sand rich in humus is not the less to be desired, as the finest samples of European growth are the produce of the districts around Paris and Brussels. The London Asparagus, which is prized by many for its full flavour and tenderness, is for the most part grown near at hand, in deep alluvial soils enriched with abundance of manure. Nature gives us the key to every secret that concerns our happiness, and on the cultivation of Asparagus she is liberal in her teaching. The plant is found growing wild on the sandy coasts of the British Islands--a proof that it loves sand and salt. Preparation of Ground.--The routine cultivation must begin with a thorough preparation of the ground. Efficient drainage is imperative, for stagnant water in the subsoil is fatal to the plant. But a rich loam does not need the extravagant manuring that has been recommended and practised. Deep digging and, where the subsoil is good, trenching may be recommended, but an average manuring will suffice, because Asparagus can be effectually aided by annual top-dressings, and proper surface culture is of great importance in the subsequent stages. It is necessary to choose an open spot for the plantation. Preparation of the ground should commence in the autumn and be continued through the winter, a heavy dressing of half-rotten stable manure being put on in the first instance, and trenched in two feet deep. In the course of a month the whole piece should be trenched back. If labour is at command a third trenching may be done with advantage, and the surface may be left ridged up until the time arrives to level it for seeding. It will be obvious that this routine is of a somewhat costly character, but we are supposing the plantation is to remain for many years, making an abundant return for the first investment. Still we are bound to say that a capital supply for a moderate table may be obtained by preparing a piece of good ground in an open situation in a quite ordinary manner with one deep digging in winter, adding at the time some six inches or so of fat stable manure, and leaving it thus until the time arrives for sowing the seed. Then it will be well to level down and point in, half a spade deep, a thin coat of decayed manure to make a nice kindly seed-bed. Where soil known to be unsuitable, such as a damp clay or pasty loam, has to be prepared for Asparagus, it will be found an economical practice to remove the top spit, which we will suppose to be turf or old cultivated soil, and on the space so cleared make up a bed of the best possible materials at command. Towards this mixture there is the top spit just referred to. Add any available lime rubbish from destroyed buildings, sand, peat, leaf-mould, surface soil raked from the rear of the shrubberies, &c., and the result should be a good compost obtained at an almost nominal cost. Size of Bed, and Sowing Seed.--At this juncture several questions of considerable importance arise. And first, whether the crop shall be grown on the flat or in raised beds. Where the soil is sufficiently deep, and the drainage perfect, the flat system answers well. The advantages of raised beds are that they deepen the soil, assist the drainage, promote warmth, and thus aid the growth of an early crop. In fact, raised beds render it possible to grow Asparagus on soils from which this vegetable could not otherwise be obtained. The preparation is the same in either case, and therefore we shall make no further allusion to flat beds, but leave those to adopt them who find their soil and requirements suitable. Now comes the question of distance, on which depends the width of the beds. The first point may be settled by the measure of the plant, and the second by the measure of the man. Monster sticks are valued at some tables, and we shall refer to these later on, but an abundant crop of handsome, though not abnormal, Asparagus meets the requirements of most households. After many experiments, we have come to the conclusion that the best mode of insuring a full return of really good sticks, with the least amount of labour, is to lay out the land in three-feet beds, with two-feet alleys between. In some instances, no doubt, five-feet beds, containing three rows of roots, one down the middle and one on each side at a distance of eighteen inches, are preferable. For the majority of gardens, however, the three-feet bed is a distinct advantage, were it only for the fact that all excuse for putting a foot on the bed is avoided. On this narrow bed only two rows of plants will be necessary. Put down the line at nine inches from the edge on both sides, and at intervals of fifteen inches in the rows dibble holes two inches deep, dropping two or three seeds in each. This will give a distance between the rows of eighteen inches. In very strong land, heavily manured, the holes may be eighteen inches apart instead of fifteen. April is the right month for sowing. Thinning.--When the 'grass' from seeds has grown about six inches high, only the strongest plant must be left at each station, and they should finally stand at a distance of fifteen or eighteen inches in the row. Much of the injury reported to follow from close planting has been the result of carelessness in thinning. The young plant is such a slender, delicate thing, that, to the thoughtless operator, it seems folly to thin down to one only. The consequence is that two or three, or perhaps half a dozen, plants are left at each station to 'fight it out,' and these become so intermixed as to appear to be one, though really many, and of course amongst them they produce more shoots than can be fed properly by the limited range of their roots. Severe, or may we say mathematical, thinning is a sine qua non, and it requires sharp eyes and careful fingers; but it must be done if the Asparagus beds are to become, as they should be, the pride of the Kitchen Garden. Blanching.--The grave question of white versus green Asparagus we cannot entertain, except so far as concerns the cultivator only. On the point of taste, therefore, we say nothing; and it is a mere matter of management whether the sticks are blanched to the very tip, or allowed to become green for some few inches. Blanching is effected in various ways. The heaping up of soft soil, such as leaf-mould, will accomplish it. On the Continent many contrivances are resorted to, such as covering the heads with wooden or earthen pipes. In a few districts in France champagne-bottles with the bottoms cut away are employed. But a strong growth being secured, the cultivator will find it an easy matter to regulate the degree of colour according to the requirements of the table he has to serve. As a rule, a moderately stout growth, with a fair show of purple colour, is everywhere appreciated, and is the easiest to produce, because the most natural. There is, however, an interesting point in connection with the production of green Asparagus, and it is that if wintry weather prevails when the heads are rising (as unfortunately is often the case) the tender green tops may be melted by frost and become worthless, or may be rendered so tough as to place the quality below that of blanched Asparagus; for the blanching is also a protective process, and quickly grown white Asparagus is often more tender and tasty than that which is green, but has been grown slowly. As the season advances and the heads rise rapidly the green Asparagus acquires its proper flavour and tenderness, and thus practical considerations should more or less influence final decisions on matters of taste. The business of the cultivator is to produce the kind of growth that is required, whether white or green, or of a quality intermediate between the two. This is easily done, making allowance for conditions. When green Asparagus is alone in demand, the cultivator may be advised to have in readiness, as the heads are making their first show, a sufficient supply of some rough and cheap protecting material, such as grass and coarse weeds, cut with a sickle from odd corners of the shrubbery and meadow land, or clean hay and straw perfectly free from mildew; but for obvious reasons stable litter should not be used. A very light sprinkling of material over an Asparagus bed that is making a first show of produce will ward off the morning frosts, and amply compensate for the little trouble in saving many tender green sticks that the frosts would melt to a jelly and render worthless. After the second or third week in May the litter may be removed if needful; but if appearances are of secondary importance, it may be left to shrink away on the spot. Cutting.--Asparagus as supplied by market growers is needlessly long in the stem. The bundles have an imposing appearance, no doubt, but the useless length adds nothing to the comfort of those at table, and is a wasteful tax on the energy of the plant. For home consumption it will generally suffice if the white portion is about four inches long, and this determines the depth at which the sticks should be cut. Here it may be useful to remark that deeply buried roots do not thrive so well as those which are nearer the surface, nor do they produce such early crops. The sticks are usually cut by thrusting down a stiff narrow-pointed knife, or specially made saw, close to each shoot; and it is necessary to do this with judgment, or adjacent shoots, which are not sufficiently advanced to reveal their presence by lifting the soil, may be damaged. To avoid this risk of injury by the knife it is possible from some beds to obtain the sticks without the aid of any implement by a twist and pull combined, but the process needs a dexterous hand and is impracticable in tenacious soils. The sticks of a handsome sample will be white four or five inches of their length; the tops close, plump, of a purplish-green colour, and the colour extending two or at most three inches down the stems. Both size and degree of colouring are, however, so entirely questions of taste that no definite rule can be stated. It is more to the purpose to say that, if liberally grown, the plant may be cut from in the third year; and that cutting should cease about the middle of June, or early in July, according to the district. For the good of the plant the sooner cutting ceases the better, as the next year's buds have to be formed in the roots by the aid of the top-growth of the current season. Weeding and Staking.--Two other points relating to the general management are worthy of attention. Some crops get on fairly well when neglected and crowded with weeds. Not so with Asparagus. The plant appears to have been designed to enjoy life in solitude, being unfit for competition; and if weeds make way in an Asparagus bed, the cultivator will pay a heavy penalty for his neglect of duty. The limitation of the beds to a width of three feet, therefore, is of consequence, because it facilitates weeding without putting a foot on them. The other point arises out of the necessity of affording support to the frail plant in places where it may happen to be exposed to wind. When Asparagus in high summer is rudely shaken, the stems snap off at the base, and the roots lose the service of the top-growth in maturing buds for the next season. To prevent this injury is easy enough, but the precautions must be adopted in good time. A free use of light, feathery stakes, such as are employed for the support of Peas, thrust in firmly all over the bed, will insure all needful support when gales are blowing. In the absence of pea-sticks, stout stakes, placed at suitable distances and connected with lengths of thick tarred twine, will answer equally well. In sheltered gardens the protection of the young growth with litter, and of the mature growth with stakes, need not be resorted to, but in exposed situations these precautions should not be neglected. Manuring Permanent Beds.--The management of Asparagus includes a careful clean-up of the beds in autumn. The plants should not be cut down until they change colour; then all the top-growth may be cleared away and the surface raked clean. Give the beds a liberal dressing of half-decayed manure, and carefully touch up the sides to make them neat and tidy. It is usual at the same time to dig and manure the alleys, but this practice we object to in toto, because it tends directly to the production of lean sticks where fat ones are possible; for the roots run freely in the alleys, and to dig is to destroy them. In the spring clear the beds of the autumn dressing by raking any remnant of manure into the alleys, and the beds and the alleys should then be carefully pricked over with a fork two or three inches deep only, and with great care not to wound any roots. The application of salt requires judgment. For a time it renders the bed cold, and when followed by snow the two combine to make a freezing mixture which arrests the growth of established plants. On a newly made bed salt is unnecessary, and may prove destructive to the roots. The proper time for applying salt must be determined by the district and the character of the season; but in no case should the mineral be used until active growth has commenced, although it is not needful to wait until the growth is visible above the surface. In the southern counties a suitable opportunity may generally be found from the beginning to the middle of April. Second and third dressings may follow at intervals of three weeks, which not only stimulate the roots but keep down weeds. Planting Roots.--In many gardens where there is space for two or three beds only there will be the very natural desire to secure Asparagus in a shorter time than is possible from seed, and we therefore proceed to indicate the best method of planting roots. Asparagus roots do not take kindly to removal, especially old and established plants. The mere drying of the roots by exposure to the atmosphere is distinctly injurious to them. They will travel safely a long distance when well packed, but the critical time is between the unpacking and getting them safely into their final home. Everything should be made ready for the transfer before the package is opened, and the actual task of planting should be accomplished in the shortest time possible. A three-feet bed should be prepared by taking out the soil in such a manner as to leave two ridges for the roots. The space between ridges to be eighteen inches, and the tops of the ridges to be so far below the level of the bed that when the soil is returned, and the bed made to its normal level, the crowns will be about five inches beneath the surface. This may be understood from the following illustration of a section cut across the bed. [Illustration] A, A represent the alleys between the beds, and B the top of one bed. The dotted lines show the ridges on which the roots are to rest at C, C. When the bed is ready, open the package and place the Asparagus on the ridges at fifteen or eighteen inches apart, allowing about half the roots of each plant to fall down on either side of the ridge. As a rule it will be wise to have two pairs of hands engaged in the task. The soil should be filled in expeditiously, and a finishing touch be given to the bed. Very rarely will it be safe to transplant Asparagus until the end of March or beginning of April, for although established roots will pass unharmed through a very severe winter, those which have recently been removed are often killed outright by a lengthened period of cold wet weather, and especially by thawed snow followed by frost. Giant Asparagus.--Some of the most critical judges of Asparagus in the country are extremely partial to giant sticks. Their preference is not based on mere superiority in size, but on the special flavour which is the peculiar merit of these extra-large Asparagus when they are properly grown. Although there is no difficulty whatever in producing them, it must be admitted that to insure specimens weighing nearly or quite half a pound, plenty of space must be allowed for the full development of each plant and a prodigal use of manure is imperative. Where drainage is effectual, the soil of any well-tilled garden can be made suitable. The roots may be grown in clumps or in rows. Clumps are planted in triangular form, two feet being allowed between the three plants of each group, with a distance of five feet between the groups. The more usual method, however, is to plant in rows. In both cases the cultural details are almost identical, and to obtain the finest results it is wise to get the preparatory work done at convenient times in advance of the planting season. Assuming that rows are decided on, commence operations by digging a broad deep trench, throwing out the soil to the right and left to form sloping sides until there is a perpendicular depth of twenty-seven inches from the top of the ridge. About one foot of prepared soil should be placed in the bottom of the trench. This may be composed of such material as the trimmings of hedges, sweepings of shrubberies, twigs from a faggot pile, wood ashes and leaf-mould. The constituents must to some extent depend on the materials at command. What is wanted is a light compost, consisting almost wholly of vegetable matter in a more or less advanced state of decomposition. Add three or four inches of rich loam, and on this, at the beginning of April, plant strong one-year roots of a robust-growing variety. Between the plants it is customary to allow a space of at least two feet, and some growers put them a full yard apart. Cover the crowns with three inches of rich soil, previously mixed with manure and laid up for the purpose. The second and following rows are to be treated in the same way, and the work must be so managed that an equal distance of four and a half or five feet is left between the rows. When the foliage dies down in autumn, a layer of fertile loam mixed with rotten manure should be spread over the surface. In the succeeding spring remove just the top crust of soil and give a thick dressing of decayed manure alone, upon which the soil can be restored. During the autumn of the second year the furrow must be filled with horse manure for the winter. Remove this manure in March, and substitute good loam containing a liberal admixture of decayed manure previously incorporated with the soil. The slight ridges that remain can then be levelled down. By this treatment large handsome sticks of Asparagus may be cut in the third year. To maintain the plants in a high state of efficiency, it must be clearly understood that forcing with horse manure will be necessary every subsequent year. Blanching may be carried out by any of the usual methods, and Sea Kale pots are both convenient and effectual. Not a weed should be visible on the beds at any time. Forcing is variously practised, and the best possible system, doubtless, is to force in the beds, and thereby train the plants to their work so that they become used to it. The growers who supply Paris with forced Asparagus produce the white sample in the beds, and the green by removal of the roots to frames. Forcing in beds may be accomplished by means of trenches filled with fermenting material or by hot-water pipes, the beds in either case being covered with frames. Where the demand for forced Asparagus is constant, there can be no doubt the hot-water system is the cheapest as well as the cleanest and most reliable; for a casual supply forcing in frames answers very well, but it is attended with the disadvantage that when the crop has been secured the roots are worthless. The practice of forcing may be said to commence with the formation of the seed-bed, for if it is to be carried on in a systematic and profitable manner, every detail must be provided for in the original arrangements. The width of the beds and of the alleys, and the disposition of the plants, will have to be carefully considered, so as to insure the best results of a costly procedure, and it will be waste of time to begin forcing until the plants have attained their fourth year. The rough method of market growers consists in the employment of hot manure in trenches, and also on the beds, after the frames are put on. The beds are usually four feet wide, the alleys two feet wide and twenty inches deep, and the plants not more than nine inches apart in the row, there being three or four rows of plants in the bed. The frames are put on when forcing commences, but the lights are withheld until the shoots begin to appear. Then the fermenting material is removed from the beds, the lights are put on, and no air is given, mats being added in cold weather, both to retain warmth and promote blanching. This method produces a fair market sample, but a much better growth may be obtained by a good hot-water system, as will be understood from a momentary consideration of details. By the employment of fermenting material the temperature runs up rapidly, sometimes extravagantly, so that it is no uncommon event for the growth to commence at 70 deg. to 80 deg. Fahr., which may produce a handsome sample, but it will be flavourless. The hot-water system allows of perfect control, and the prudent grower will begin at 50 deg., rise slowly to 60 deg., and take care not to exceed 65 deg.; the result will be a sample full of flavour, with a finer appearance than the best obtainable by the rougher method. Forcing in frames is systematically practised in many gardens, and as it exhausts the roots there must be a corresponding production of roots for the purpose. The first requisite is a good lasting hot-bed, covered with about four inches of light soil of any kind, but preferably leaf-mould. The roots are carefully lifted and planted as closely as possible on this bed, and covered with fine soil to a depth of six inches. The sashes are then put on and kept close; but a little air may be given as the heads rise, to promote colour and flavour. The heat will generally run to 70 deg., and that figure should be the maximum allowed. Experienced growers prefer to force at 60 deg. or 65 deg., and to take a little more time for the advantage of a finer sample.


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