One of the first things we did in the vegetable garden was plant an asparagus bed. It takes three to four years to harvest a crop from asparagus, as the plants need time to strengthen and develop, so we wanted to get started as soon as possible. We ordered fifteen crowns, made up of four different varieties. Our aim was to draw out the asparagus season in the garden for as long as we could. We therefore chose strains that, together, spanned mid-spring to early summer, but also had a reputation for cropping well and tasting delicious: Mondeo, a particularly early, all-male variety (the male plants produce more spears); Ginjlim, another all-male type that we have no idea how to pronounce, that has beautiful lilac tops to contrast its prolific amount of deep green stems; Connovers Colossal, which has grass-green spears and is supposed to go on producing for many years once established; and Guelph Millenium, the last to appear and known for producing high yields.
We ordered the plants online and they arrived, rather inconveniently, at the very start of the working week in mid-March. So, upon return from work, we spent the final hour of daylight rushing to plant them before they dried out. We chose the sunniest and most sheltered of the raised beds for the precious bare-rooted crowns to grow. Two shallow trenches were dug within the wooden frame, and the soil shaped into a raised arch in the middle of each of them. The odd, crab-like crowns, were then spaced out across the arch ridges, with their roots carefully parted and spread in a star shape around them. After a quick covering of soil and mulch, we retreated inside for dinner, leaving the crown tops peeking ever so slightly out of the surface of the earth.
For two years, we watched as dozens of spears poked their tips up through the soil and grew up into tall, sprawling, feathery plants. Though not ready for eating yet, the asparagus offered other benefits in the vegetable patch by way of tiny, pale yellow, bell blossoms, which were loved by our bees and other pollinating insects. To stop the plants swaying and breaking in the wind, we carefully supported them with a structure of twine and canes, stabilised at the corners of the bed, so as not to disturb their sensitive roots. They are a pretty sight on an early summer morning; soft, flossy leaves, decorated with shimmering dewdrops. Once the plants started to fade from green to yellow in the autumn, we cut them back down to soil level and, over the winter months, added a mulch of fresh compost.
During that time we didn’t harvest a single spear from the plants. That said, we did commandeer one from Scruffles the goose, who had managed to sneak into the bed and steal a stem. We intercepted her on route to the water bucket, where she likes to dunk most of her scavenged curiosities (in the past we’ve found several gardening gloves, a rusty bolt, a small bamboo cane, and a large carrot). After some quick negotiation with the tubby goose, involving a handful of wheat and a dandelion, the forbidden harvest was ours. To make the most of the precious spear, we shaved it into paper-thin slices using a vegetable peeler, scattered it raw on top of a salad, and divided it evenly between the two of us. We ate it with the same reverence that diners in swish restaurants give to truffle mushrooms.
Three years on, we are now officially allowed to take a small harvest of asparagus from the bed. It has certainly made us appreciate the value of the delicious little spears that grace our lunch plates. They require only the simplest treatment in the kitchen. We space them out, single file, along the iron ridges of a griddle pan. High heat, a dribble of olive oil, the grinding of black pepper and some crumbled flakes of sea salt is all they need. A couple of minutes cooking time on each side will leave the stems al dente and charred with flavoursome golden-black stripes. We cook them as soon as they are picked, meaning that they are still packed full of natural sugars and therefore have a slightly sweeter taste than supermarket spears. We serve them (loaf of crusty bread on the side) with soft boiled eggs, a squeeze of lemon, a scattering of baby leaf herbs and edible flowers, and a trickle of walnut oil. Undoubtedly worth the wait.