ASPARAGUS IS the right vegetable for many gardeners to attempt, provided they have a nice sunny strip somewhere, since it is fairly expensive in stores and the gardener may reflect, therefore, how rich he is becoming by growing his own.
How much space to give it depends (as so much in this world does) partly on what is possible.
The roots are planted any time now, as soon as the earth can be dug. If you feel up to it, very deep digging is fine; but in any case dig at least a spade deep, working in some rotted manure (not one gardener in 300 will have it, so don't feel terribly abused and deprived if you do not) or peat moss so that you have a nice friable bed.
There is no need to overdo it -- you do not need as much humus as you would to plant azaleas or camellias in. Soil that will suit the roses will suit the asparagus. Not that you should plant them in the rose bed, of course, since asparagus grows 40-inches high.
Dormant roots are acquired from garden centers or mail-order firms. One or two-year-old roots are what you want. One-year roots are a bit cheaper and grow with the fewest casualties, but two-year roots do well enough and are larger. They may, or may not, give you a crop a year earlier than younger roots.
Three and four-year-old roots are sometimes offered, and are commonly warned against by those who say the older roots suffer vast shocks at being moved, and casualties may be high. Also, they go on, you get to cut asparagus just as quickly from two-year roots.
The roots may also be planted as close as a foot apart, though that would be foolish if you have plenty of space. Two feet apart is good, if you have ample space, and 18 inches is usually given as the minimum spacing between plants. Still, many have found 12 inches possible, though the individual spears are smaller than at wider spacings.
Sometimes there is a fairly useless space along the sunny side of a garage, and asparagus are one answer to a good use for it.
When I was a boy my parents had a bed the size of a living room dug 40 inches deep and barrow loads of old manure were dumped in. All respectable people, in those days, dug the asparagus bed at least 30 inches deep, and I suppose some show-offs went to China.
But digging one spit deep (a "spit" is the depth of a space, which I mention because one of the ghastly truths of today is that many people do not commonly use the word) will do, the roots set four inches beneath the surface.
The soil must be firm about the roots. It is no good working up a nice humusy bed, setting the roots, and giving them a little pat. On the contrary, the soil must be firm against the roots. You tread on it after the roots are in, when the earth is fairly dry.
Asparagus need not be staked. They do flop a little. If grown in a narrow strip, they may be kept from leaning out into the path by a few stakes with wires to hold them back, but there is no need to do this as a rule.
Planted this spring, you may cut a few next spring, provided they are large enough, and it is astonishing how small an asparagus may be for the gardener to think it large enough to cut.
If you don't know, go to the grocery and examine asparagus, and the first spring yours are that size, cut freely. Try to be patient, and not count on much until 1983. You continue to cut your asparagus until the individual spears start looking thin, like pencils, then you stop for the year.
Weeds are no great problem once the bed is established, since the summer growth -- "fern" is the pleasant word for this feathery growth -- shades out sprouting weed seeds.
Guard against bindweed, ground elder or any other vicious perennial weed. There is no point planting asparagus or anything else until the bindweed (that wretched beast, fairly attractive, that looks like a small white morning-glory vine) is out. Fortunately it is easily spotted when you are digging, its roots like thongs and ivory white. In the country they call it devil's guts.
There are creatures called asparagus beetles, and they are sometimes admired not only because they are beautiful but because the gardener thinks they are lady-bugs. They do not, I believe, do any great damage. Neither do lightening bugs, I hope, which are often abundant.
it would be a hard choice, after all, between asparagus and lightening bugs. I am sure their grubs must do some damage, but perhaps it is one of those things one does not have to face head-on.
Once the spears come through the ground about six-inches high, you cut them with a knife, and you keep cutting every day until the season ends after several weeks. If you do not cut them as soon as they are the right length, the spears begin to branch and are no good for cutting.
Almost the only variety sold in America is called 'Mary Washington,' though there is another sort called 'Martha Washington' and I suppose that here and there people grow any number of other obscure sorts. The Roberts Strain -- usually called 'Roberts' in catalogues -- is a selection from 'Mary Washington' that is supposed to yield even more heavily.
Fifty plants is a good number for an ordinary family, and even 25 plants are well worth having. If it happens to suit your taste and your garden design, occasional clumps of asparagus may be grown in the flower borders. They do not, after all, have to be grown in a row among vegetables.