Planting asparagus is a long-term investment in good eating, but your patience will eventually be rewarded with a crop that is tastier than anything available in shops, says Clare Wilson
THERE is much debate about the merits of eating fruit and vegetables that are available seasonally and grown locally, to reduce your carbon footprint. From a taste point of view, I would argue that there are at least two crops where locally grown produce has a real edge. These are strawberries, which have better taste and texture if you can get them fresh, and asparagus – in my humble opinion, the king of vegetables, but also known among growers as the most quickly perishable after harvesting.
For these reasons, it is well worth buying asparagus only during the brief period in spring when it is in season locally and trying to choose produce that looks as freshly harvested as possible. The stems should be firm to the touch and the buds at the end tightly closed.
An even surer way of getting a freshly picked crop is to grow your own. Asparagus is a great choice for beginner gardeners as it is so trouble-free. Unlike many other crops, it doesn’t seem to appeal much to slugs or other pests, so I get a brief glut of asparagus every spring.
The only downside is that growing this plant is a long-term investment in good eating. After planting your asparagus “crowns” – an unpromising-looking bundle of roots – you have to wait two or three years before the plants can be harvested.
This is because they need to be strong enough to survive when you brutally snap off the emerging stems to feast on. After about two months of harvesting, you must leave the stems to regrow in peace so they can photosynthesise all summer and send energy down to the roots for next year. That is why the asparagus season is so short.
Once allowed to grow, the asparagus stems become huge, feathery fronds – far too tough to eat, but a decorative backdrop for flower beds. The growth stops in autumn and the stems should be cut down in winter, letting the cycle begin again.
As the UK asparagus season is fast approaching – by tradition, it starts on 23 April, St George’s Day – I am eagerly monitoring my asparagus bed to spot the first shoots pushing up through the layer of mulch I treated the plants to over winter. The stems can grow as quickly as 10 centimetres a day, so I keep a close watch to make sure I don’t miss out on an early harvest.
This high metabolic rate may be why asparagus is so perishable. Once picked, the stems metabolise their sugars in a vain effort to keep growing. There is also a rise in fibrous materials such as lignin, so less-fresh produce is tougher as well as less sweet and delicately flavoured. I am so keen to eat my asparagus fresh that when I visit my allotment, I pick the stems just before I am about to leave and devour them as soon as I get home – briefly steamed and slathered in butter.