Now is the time to plant asparagus and rhubarb.
Words: Graham Ross
Both these kitchen favourites are grown from crowns, a fleshy section of ground-level stem with a few stubby roots attached. They can also be grown from seed – the less expensive option – but they crop quicker when grown from crowns, so I’d say the investment is worth it. You will need space though, as both crops prefer a garden bed to themselves.
Our rhubarb plants are several years old but have been reliably supplying us with delicious red stems for cooking every year. In a few years, I will replace the patch with new crowns as they burn themselves out after seven-to-eight years. Ours were originally grown from crowns I bought in Victoria, but you don’t need to travel far and wide to buy them. Look for them at your local nursery or purchase them online. Tip! A family of four needs eight plants.
In warm temperate regions, look for ‘Sydney Crimson’ or ‘Ever Red’. In cooler areas, grow ‘Wandin Giant’, ‘Victoria’ or ‘Silvan Giant’, which tends to crop all year.
Select a warm, sunny spot with well-drained soil. Some varieties will tolerate a little shade, however, good drainage is essential. If the soil is heavy clay, raise beds, and add compost and organic matter to help improve the soil. Prior to planting, enrich the soil with manure and a handful of blood and bone or bonemeal to every square metre and dig in. Yes, rhubarb is hungry. Apply a side-dressing of complete organic based fertiliser, like Gyganic, when new leaves appear in spring.
Plant crowns one metre apart with the visible growing bud just at ground level. Water in and mulch with WhoFlungDung, sugar cane or cow manure. The mulch should be maintained during summer to prevent crowns from drying out.If you have old plants winter is the time to dig up and divide the crowns, discarding any spongy decaying sections. This can be done every four-to-five years.
When harvesting, it is important to start with the outer stems, pulling them down and sidewards to remove cleanly. Prune any flower heads that appear and remember the green leaves of rhubarb are poisonous.
Your local garden centre will have Mr Fothergill’s crowns or order online with Green Harvest, Eden Seeds or The Diggers Club.
The best asparagus I’ve seen were in cool to cold temperate climates, but some gardeners in subtropical and warm regions are having success too. Whatever your climate, you will need patience and a decent sized garden bed – it takes two-to-three years from planting to harvest. A regular family will need at least 25 plants and twenty years is normal for cropping.
Varieties include long green ‘Mary Washington’, purple-speared ‘Sweet Purple’, and, for lovers of thick spears, ‘Fat Bastard’, an F1 male hybrid available from The Diggers Club. Green spears are cut when 15cm long and ‘white’ stems are naturally blanched by hilling soil to cover the young, growing stems to 30cm.
Choose a spot in full sun, with well-drained soil. Improve soil by adding compost and aged manure. Dig a trench 20cm deep and 30cm wide and make a small mound in the centre of the trench. Plant crowns onto the mounds, spacing them 50cm apart. Backfill with soil, then water well. Spears will pop up in spring, but don’t harvest any in the first spring. The spears develop into 1m long, ferny fronds that eventually yellow and wither. Prune them to the ground and feed with a complete organic based fertiliser in winter. Mulch well, too.
Female plants produce red berries throughout the growing season and should be removed. Male plants are the best producers of edible spears.
In the second- or third-year, harvest spears by using sharp knife to cut stems just below ground level. Do this every couple of days and continue well throughout the season.
Garden centres typically have them in stock briefly at the end of autumn to beginning of winter. You can also find them online at Daley’s Fruit Tree Nursery and Green Harvest.