Asparagus and Other Flights of Fancy

A man may have ambitions over the age of 27, whatever they say. Two spring to my mind. One is to go up in (or just under) a balloon. This is my airy ambition.

My earthy ambition is to grow asparagus.

Not just grow it, but grow it with such aplomb that I could go out to the asparagus bed of an April/May morning and slice off a sufficient number of perfect, tender, succulent four-inch buds to make a meal. Or a first course, anyway.

What more could a gardener ask for? Yet the amateur horticultural world is littered with resignedly shoulder-shrugging would-have-been asparagus-growers, including moi.

"Have you ever tried growing asparagus?" is a good question to toss at over-confident gardeners. "Oh, I tried once...." they mutter. And unaccountably the conversation switches to their prize-winning leeks.

Even Alfred W. Kidner, the author of the only book I've found devoted to asparagus, notes "the apparent indifference of asparagus to all attentions of man." And A.A. Milne, in a classic essay on asparagus, has these only-too-accurate words to say:

"Theoretically, an asparagus bed takes three years to mature. Practically what happens is that after the second lean year you decide, very naturally, to grow carrots instead.... [After] two years of carrots you decide, again very naturally, to give asparagus one more chance, and after ... another two barren years you decide ... on spinach.... So in a little while you will have been trying to grow asparagus for eight years, and you will have come to the conclusion (as I have) that the thing cannot be done.

"You can buy asparagus, you can eat asparagus (heavens, yes), but you can't grow it...."

Like him, I have tried. Following advice, I dug down virtually to Australasia (I lived in Yorkshire then) and compiled a bed for the spider-rooted specimens that was layered, like a marvelous chocolate cake, with loam and manure. I planted the plants. Nothing happened, except for one wispy finger meandering above the surface. It stretched plaintively skyward, turned into a windblown feathery fern, died down in the autumn, and then vanished forever.

I am, however, now determined to try again. Partly this is prompted by childhood memories of the asparagus in Grandmother's garden in Norfolk. They were the only successful asparagus beds I've known. They convince me - despite Mr. Milne - the vegetable can be grown. My aunt used to trail me along, with her terrier Sprigginsgrass in the bicycle basket, to feed the horse and the hens, collect the eggs, and pick the asparagus. It grew in two specially mounded squares of dark, weedless earth with scrupulously sloped boundaries.

This asparagus corner was surrounded by beech hedges. The asparagus was invisibly subterranean except for the new shoots, thick thumbs and slender fingers, emerging haphazardly like a conjuring trick. The same trick is performed by mushrooms: they seem to come from nowhere, like dew or manna.

AUNTIE JO cut the ones she judged ready with matter-of-fact pride. We took the purplish-green and white spears across the road to the house, handing them in at the kitchen. Twenty minutes later, we were dipping them into melted butter at the dining-room table, gorging the delicacy like kings.

Milne describes this pleasure wonderfully (though he advocates Hollandaise sauce). "Real asparagus," he writes, "must be eaten to the hilt, so that the last bite imperils the thumb." And he observes how "tender fragments ... will crumble off from each shoot as you have it in the sauce, and be left, green islets in a golden sea, marooned upon the plate. These," he adds, "must be secured at any cost with the fingers, a spoon, a piece of bread, an old envelope, it matters not. When you are eating asparagus, you are eating asparagus. Reserve your breeding for the brussels sprouts."

The thing, of course, that drives me to have another go at asparagus culture is the thought of eating it. You can buy it easily enough, but these professional bunches are almost flavorless. They don't hold a candle to the taste I remember from years ago.

But another thing drives me, too - a great unwillingness to admit defeat.

THERE isn't a gardening book on my shelves that does not try to persuade me that there is nothing more to asparagus growing than planting, feeding, weeding, and waiting. Any fool can do it, they suggest. Even Mr. Kidner, who states that it is easier to design and make a car than to grow asparagus well, remarks: "If thistles grow well [in your soil], so will asparagus. The same applies to couch grass."

Since these two rank weeds will grow well on any soil, Kidner's remark is more infuriating than enlightening.

Anyway, this time I am attacking the problem from several different directions at once. I have bought plants - grown in pots - from a garden center. A mail-order of crowns will come from an asparagus grower who happens to have a nursery in London, the village my grandmother lived in. And Monty, a lady who has one of the local allotments, has sown a packet of seed for me. She swears by this method.

All this is a great incentive to longevity and continuing aspirations.

Which brings me back to balloons. My wife's Christmas present to me was a voucher for a balloon ride. Riding in a balloon is almost as unpredictable, though, as the growing of asparagus; it is so weather-dependent. You book a date and time. Phone on the day. They tell you the flight is cancelled. You book another day. And so it goes.

The question is, which is going to happen first? Will I still be waiting patiently for my ballooning in eight years' time, like Milne for his asparagus?

A happy thought strikes me, though: that maybe the two aspirations will finally coincide.

The Rev. Sidney Smith claimed that heaven was eating pte de foie gras to the sound of trumpets. Nonsense. Heaven is eating home-grown asparagus up in a balloon.

I'll let you know how things turn out.

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