April Fool's Day occasionally brings the first sight of lustful asparagus, but to save a few quid you'll have to wait...
Entirely appropriately, I start looking for the first asparagus to push through the soil on April Fools’ Day. I’m usually a good fortnight early, but still, what have we if not hope? At some point, when spring crosses a happy threshold, the spears drive skyward, often appearing overnight. I’ve seen a half-brick lifted by this push into the light.
It is, of course, all driven by sex: the stems are topped with flower buds desperate to blossom and produce seed, and it’s your duty to interrupt this indecent business to your culinary advantage.
‘It wasn’t until we moved into our third house that I realised I ought to bite the bullet and plant some asparagus’
For every wet, cold, muddy day in the garden, you need something to swing the pendulum back your way, and quickly cooked asparagus with butter, too much pepper, a little salt and a rubble of parmesan just about covers the duff days on its own.
Yes, I love a Sungold tomato eaten off the stem and the first, less-than-romantically named BF15 potatoes of the year, but, if you turned the thumbscrews sufficiently, I would choose asparagus, cut and eaten within minutes, as my favourite vegetable.
I am not naturally patient. It wasn’t until we moved into our third house that I realised I ought to bite the bullet and plant some asparagus, although it meant a good wait until the eating. I’d had a revelation — over a pint of Timothy Taylor — that I should see asparagus not as a sluggish part of the vegetable patch, but as a mini vegetable orchard. It is, after all, a perennial capable of delivering many years of wonderful harvests.
Waiting to eat homegrown asparagus is unavoidable: the question is, will you pay a few quid to shorten the torture? You can sow seed in spring and wait three years until they’re ready to offer you lunch or reduce that to two years by spending on young plants known as crowns.
My stomach trumped my wallet. There is still one spring of torture after planting, when delicious stems push through the earth and everything about you wants to reach for the knife. But sit on your hands or go on a six-week cruise you must, as asparagus plants need all their early strength to establish themselves.
I did, accidentally, try my first homegrown asparagus in that forbidden spring. I knelt on a spear, snapping it a few inches from the tip and ate it brushed free of soil. If you’ve never tried raw, just-cut asparagus, you must – it’s like very fresh peanuts crossed with artichoke heart.
By the following spring, I had a dozen or so recipes awaiting my spears, but, in the end, we ate almost all of them the same way: quickly cooked and simply adorned. The secret to enjoying asparagus at its sweetest, its most succulent, is to get everything else ready in the kitchen before you pick.
Get the water on to boil or the oven preheating. It makes a difference, I promise. It’s an entirely elevated pleasure to the Peruvian pencils that sit in our supermarkets all year. I avoid asparagus for all but the weeks my vegetable patch offers.
‘Dream again of April Fools’ Day…’
Asparagus is as simple to grow as it is to eat. It’s naturally a seaside plant and prefers the kind of well-drained soil my patch of Devon lacks, so I created a raised bed, full of compost with a little sand and gravel for drainage. Crowns look like small dead octopi and are usually available in early spring.
Ahead of their arrival, dig a trench a little deeper than the depth of your spade, refilling with 6in or so of excavated soil and well-rotted manure or compost, forming a ridge in an upturned V along the bottom of the trench.
Space the crowns at least 20in from each other along the ridge, spreading the tentacles out on either side. Refill with the excavated soil and water well. Allow about 30in between rows.
Watering well in the first year and keeping the bed weed-free is all that stands between you and the best asparagus. Being the idle sort, I use a mulch of compost or well-rotted manure to suppress the weeds, feed the plants and retain moisture.
Stop harvesting at the end of May, leaving the spears to grow on before cutting them back to 2in above ground as the foliage turns yellow in autumn.
And then dream again of April Fools’ Day.