Jason Goodwin: ‘After a year, absolutely nothing had happened – not a shoot, not one feathery frond’

Our Spectator columunist keeps the faith in his asparagus bed.

Starting an asparagus bed is one of those acts of faith, like planting a yew hedge or learning Turkish, which you ought to have done before, maybe 10 years before, but which everyone tells you will pay off with surprising suddenness once you get down to it.

Just the other day, our friends Mark and Olivia moved into a converted barn and planted rows of tiny little yews all up and down the garden. Mark uses a ladder now and has invested in a set of electric clippers; when I last visited, we wandered together along the shady alleys with our hands clasped behind our backs, like characters out of The Draughtsman’s Contract.

Kate’s parents had an asparagus bed that looked like the rainforest by May, full of sturdy spears and thick with feathered fronds, and it was this bed I had in mind when, one autumn, many moons ago, I bought in a stock of spidery asparagus plants with an uncompromising Chinese name.

The previous owners of our house had created a weird little Japanese garden in a trench between two concrete paths, so we raked off sacks of pale shingle and heaved away boulders, and then dug the trench and filled it with manure, and then reverently laid out the roots and backfilled and, after a year, absolutely nothing had happened – not a shoot, not one feathery frond.

‘It takes three years,’ people said wisely, ‘before you can begin picking.’

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I took a spade and dug back through the bed, cautiously at first, then desperately and, finally, shovelling with maddened disbelief: the roots had completely vanished. Was it mice? Mildew? Rustlers? Perhaps, I wondered, we were suffering the effects of a Shinto curse?

There was time to start again, because you have to believe that there is always time, but we had lost one of those precious years. I ordered a variety of new crowns, with encouraging names like Purple Passion and Jersey Giant, and dug them in.

We once lived near a pick-your-own farm that did soft fruit, courgettes and all manner of squashes and spuds, and whose chief claim to glory was a mysterious supply of green asparagus, which the owners grew somewhere out of sight and sensibly picked themselves.

They sold handsome bundles done up with string for the regular asparagus price, but for a mere fiver you could also get heaps of spears in all shapes and sizes crammed into one of those blue cardboard mushroom punnets with a tin handle. We lived on asparagus in all its forms and the summers seemed long and interestingly scented.

Raw or roasted, sautéed or steamed, it’s just slightly ahead of fresh peas and turbot on my check list for Paradise—and strawberries, which come in to compensate when the asparagus fades out. All in all, I think I like asparagus roasted best, with a scrunch of salt and maybe a scattering of bacon.

This is the first year – the fifth since we planted – that we agreed to allow ourselves to pick all the spears that grow. And yet, and yet… I’m still not sure we did everything right. Those beds of my youth were thick with spears, enough to defeat a Hollandaise army, but ours is thick only with dandelions and fennel, which shoots up and pretends to be asparagus from a distance.

As for the spears, I don’t mind them being fat and thin, tall and short, purple and green. What I can’t help noticing is that they resemble the hunched survivors of an aerial bombardment, scuttling towards their shelters. I have kept faith: it’s just the asparagus that looks uncertain.