How to Grow Asparagus, Artichokes and Cardoons
Growing Asparagus, Artichokes and Cardoons
Asparagus, artichokes and cardoons have always had high status in the. This must stem from the delights they offer at the table (in ancient Rome, artichokes were thought so delicious that they were forbidden to commoners), and definitely not from the skill needed to grow them. They all crop well with but the slightest attention.
All three crops are most easily and cheaply produced from seed. Roots of named varieties of asparagus and artichokes can be bought saving (if all goes well) a year’s wait for the first asparagus spears, and a year’s fun selecting the best variants of the artichoke crop. In general, asparagus varieties are poorly defined anyway, and good cultivation is more important than varietal difference. There are a number of artichoke varieties (mostly grown on the Continent), but a packet of seed will cover much of the range. Chose those with fleshy scale bases, or tough scales but large ‘fonds’, or tender young buds, or fancy colours, as you feel inclined. Once you’ve some plants you like, it’s an easy matter to increase them.
A few plants, if only to provide asparagus sauce for a boiled chicken, deserve a place in every garden. Most of my plants are grown from seed, and seem entirely satisfactory. Seed germinates easily if fresh, and the seedlings are put into their final spacing (45cm/18in) in their second year. They can be lightly cropped in the third, and more seriously in the fourth. By that time, female plants are producing more seed, and so you can either expand the crop, or start digging up mature roots for forcing in the greenhouse. Otherwise, buy one-year-old roots, which are easier to establish than older roots, and plant carefully with the crowns 10cm (4in) below the surface.
Crops are almost pest-proof, apart from asparagus beetle. It’s important to stop the seedlings being smothered by weeds, and to ensure that the mature plants are either carefully staked or strung, or planted in a very sheltered situation. Stems that blow over and snap won’t do anything to build up the root for next year’s crop. Give the plants an annual feed of manure.
Some of my plants are permanent inhabitants of the formal, and still yield some very good spears. It’s often suggested that plants should be grown on . If your easily, don’t bother to do that; if it doesn’t drain, it might be worth trying. It’s also usually recommended that the spears are cut off below soil level. However, don’t worry if you miss the right moment; the tops can be cut from stems a yard high, and still taste good.
Sow seeds in gentle warmth as early as you can. Plant out in May 120cm (4ft) apart (the intervening space can be cropped with anything ready by the end of July). The plants like a sunny position_ and good rich soil. Take care that the young plants don’t dry out. By the end of September (earlier in the south), they should be producing the first crop of flower buds. Remember to mark the plants that give the best eating.
The plants die down to the root in winter, and it’s usually recommended that the dormant plants are given a protection of straw. In my garden, by the Firth of Forth, I never get round to doing this and have not yet had plants killed by cold. But if you prefer to play safe, pot up your plants and let them overwinter under frost-free glass.
The following spring, each root sends up a number of shoots. Four or five is the maximum number allowable to each plant. The rest should be removed when about 20cm (8in) high, cutting as close to the main root as possible (a trowel is a good implement for this). If the plant was an especially good one, the pieces removed — with a few roots attached — can be treated as cuttings, and will root easily. They are inclined to flop terribly at first, but you can forestall this by shortening the leaves by half when planting.
If you have an excess of spare shoots, they can be given away, cooked as a vegetable (good), or pickled (delicious). The second-year plants should be cropping by the end of June, the rooted side-shoots by August, and there should still be some for eating at the end of October.
Other than an annual manuring, and regular hoeing (the arching leaves provide a perfect cover for weeds), the plants require little further attention. They’re fairly pest-proof, though earwigs can badly damage leaves early in the season, and black aphids are a nuisance on flower heads in southern parts.
The same botanical species as the artichoke, the cardoon is valued for its fleshy mid-ribs to the leaves, not its fleshy flower buds. The plants are a good deal taller, leafier, and very elegant.
They are grown rather differently. Seedlings are planted out at 120cm (4ft) spacings. No flower shoots are produced in the first year, and in September the bunches of leaves are tied into a sheaf (a tricky job this, needing plenty of spare hands and yards of tape or soft twine). The lower two-thirds of the sheaf is then earthed up, or loosely wrapped with black polythene. Blanching is complete in about six weeks, but the leaf bunches can be harvested throughout the winter or stored in a cellar or sand-box. A well-grown bunch provides plenty of eating (whether raw or cooked) and is good as a dinner-party plant. Incidentally, the mid-ribs can be eaten unblanched, but they are then stringier and less well flavoured.
Any plants not eaten can be left in the ground and allowed to flower, whether for decoration (spectacular), or seed (if the plant is in a warm place). Most plants then die, but a few produce side-shoots which can be treated as those of the artichoke — planted, cooked or pickled.
Lift the cardoons as they are needed, but be sure to put back the soil so that the remaining plants are kept in the dark.
There are no definite British varieties. Ask for French or Spanish cardoon seed. For flavour, length of stems and hardiness, the French cardoon is preferable to the Spanish, but the latter is not prickly and is therefore easier to work with.