The first of this season’s asparagus has been fantastic so far – the yields have been good, and we’ve been picking every day up until this week, when the soil temperature dropped and the plants stopped growing. We’ve also had the first rain for weeks this morning, which I’m really happy about as it’s been very dry.
My fourth-generation farm is in Cambridgeshire, in the heart of the Fens. It’s one of the driest areas of the country – which, luckily, is fine for asparagus as it likes dry soil. We specialise in the slightly ‘different’ crops, like asparagus, rhubarb and artichokes; that’s our niche. When I started converting to organic in 2006, I decided it would only work for us if we started with crops that weren’t readily available in the UK, so that’s the market we aimed at.
With asparagus, you plant it as a crown and then it’s in the ground for two years before you pick anything – something people don’t realise. Our planting is staggered, so we usually end up needing to plant in some fields every other year. We hope to get around eight to ten harvests from one crop. When the crop gets a bit older it becomes financially unviable and that’s when we start taking it out.
After planting, we cover the asparagus with a compostable film made from non-GM starch, which I developed with a Dutch company and helps stop weeds coming through. When I said I was going to grow asparagus organically, people said I was mad, because of the pressure of weed control. It is notoriously a very difficult crop to grow organically, but that film has really helped. We don’t have much of a pest problem here, there is an asparagus beetle, but we’ve got a good population of spiders to keep that under control. We start picking when the spears are about the length of a basic kitchen knife.
Most of our crops started a couple of weeks ago, so we’ll be picking something every day from now until mid-November, which is a nice thought! Asparagus, artichokes and rhubarb are all perennial, meaning you plant them once and that’s it. Personally, I love perennials. You’ve just got to get your establishment right; if it’s not successful you’re stuck with it – I think that’s what puts some people off.