My paternal grandmother "Jannie" kept her posture perfect and her hair jet back till the day she died, well over the 'three score years and ten' that was expected back then. Every morning boiled eggs were served with immaculate toast "soldiers" and a silver egg-spoon, and as soon as the marmalade left the breakfast table the silver spoon would be cleaned.
Jannie also had an impeccably suitable finger food luncheon dish for visitors: toasted cheese and asparagus, crusts cut off, cut into neat slices. The asparagus came from a tin. As far as I know Jannie never met a fresh asparagus stalk. As asparagus grows in dirt, and not neatly uniform but long, short, thin or fat, Jannie may not have approved.
Tinned asparagus was so loved that when it first became readily available in Australia in the 1960s many recipes suggested boiling it with the lid of a can, to give the fresh asparagus a "proper" tinned taste. I first tasted real asparagus (definitely not cooked with a tin lid) in the home of a Frenchman: home grown, each stem as fat as my thumb. We ate with our fingers, and dipped each stem into a vast bowl of garlic mayonnaise.
I planted my first asparagus the next day.
Asparagus back then was usually grown from two-year-old bare-rooted plants dug up, stored, sold, then planted in the purchaser's garden while dormant in winter (ie when the asparagus is formant, not the gardener).
You can still buy "crowns" at most garden centres: plant them with their roots spread out, water well, and then feed and water generously for two years and then pick the new shoots in spring, when the first asparagus spears from the bare ground.
Asparagus is a civilised crop to grow. It will tell you exactly when to pick, and when to stop picking. Begin picking your homegrown crop when the stalks are at least as thick as your little finger. Keep picking every day, then stop when the shoots become thinner, so you don't exhaust the plant. Let the new lot of shoots grow to their full ferny beauty to help nourish the plant.
The only available asparagus variety when I first began to grow it was Mary Washington. Any asparagus is worth growing, and Mary Washington isn't bad, but the modern hybrid varieties grow faster and with a longer cropping time, and the taste and texture are similar.
For sheer luxury though, you need varieties like "fat white" (though you will find it turns green eventually, and skinny if over picked). The even thicker stemmed purple asparagus is the sweetest and most tender I have ever eaten, with a stronger asparagus flavour. I am planting more and more purple asparagus. One day I may even become generous enough to offer some to guests.
Much of today's "fresh" asparagus available is imported, unless you buy from a farmer's market. Compared to freshly picked asparagus, it's geriatric too. It's no more a luxury than Jannie's canned on toast. I have no idea what variety it is - possibly a hybrid specially bred to enjoy tourism to new and exotic locations, like an Australian supermarket.
Once you eat homegrown asparagus - especially (salivates) purple asparagus, you'll realise why asparagus has been a major luxury for so long - not for its expense, or rarity, as it is easy to grow, and can be harvested for a good three months (a very, very good three months) but because it is so deeply, gloriously delicious.
Which brings me to asparagus seed. Plant seed, not those big ugly crowns that have been drying out for months. One packet of seed will give you at least a dozen plants - it depends how many seeds you get per packet. Or buy seedling asparagus, if you can get it. Asparagus crowns sulk for a year before they begin to grow well. I'd sulk too if someone dug me up and left me to wither for most of winter.
Seedlings planted where they are to grow, or transplanted carefully while still young, then mulched, watered and fed generously will grow much faster than crowns, and you may be able to harvest your seedlings two years from planting i.e. the same time as if you'd planted the more expensive crowns.
Plant seedlings as soon as the worst frosts are probably over, or in old pots or old containers on the windowsill to plant out in late spring. Plant lots. Then lots more. It is impossible to grow too much asparagus. If you are in despair about a lack of social life, plant vast amounts of purple, fat white and green asparagus, then send out invitations to an "asparagus tasting" in two years' time.
I can't guarantee the company, but the asparagus will be a delight.
This week I am:
- Muttering at the two white goshawks who sit on the chook shed each lunch time, purely to terrify the chooks.
- Picking yellow daffodils and thinking 'Spring! Spring!'
- Hoping it might snow, but it didn't - I have yet to manage to get a photo of snow on our avocado trees.
- Still eating last season's sweet potatoes. I am sick of sweet potatoes, except in sweet potato scones. I can eat an indefinite number of sweet potato scones, but shouldn't.
- Thanking whoever bred Lady Williams apples, which last beautifully for months as long as you don't cold store them (they lose flavour) and are wonderful in thick crisp slices with a thin slice of sharp cheese.
- Wondering if it is worth daydreaming of what annual flower I'll grow this summer, or if there'll be no rain, extreme heat and hungry wildlife. If the flowers are just going to end up as wallaby tucker I may as well just buy wallaby tucker and bird seed and enjoy watching them, instead of the flowers. Would it be cruel to spray a petunia pattern on the wallabies? I doubt they'd notice. Or maybe they'd have nervous breakdowns each time they glimpsed another wallaby. That idea should probably go the same way as my scheme to sell advertising space on the sides of black Angus cattle, or open a hairdressing salon for sheep. (Fiction only.)