Life

Actor and gardener Caroline Quentin reveals her epic asparagus disaster

As the asparagus season begins, the Men Behaving Badly star admits how she learned to grow it the hard way.

Men Behaving Badly star Caroline Quentin is a keen gardener
Men Behaving Badly star Caroline Quentin is a keen gardener (Alamy Stock Photo)

It’s asparagus season, when spears of this popular vegetable are ready for harvesting between late April and mid-June, and gardeners with the right soil and situation can look forward to years of abundant cropping.

But for actor and keen gardener Caroline Quentin, it hasn’t always been so. She charts her experience with growing asparagus in her new book, Drawn To The Garden.

“I was desperate for an asparagus bed, as I’d lived in a rented house in Devon where I discovered an asparagus bed which was very overgrown, and found what a wonderful crop it is,” says the actor, who has 170k Instagram followers on her cqgardens feed.

(Sam Farmer/PA/Sam Farmer/PA)

After gorging with her family on the delicious spears, she took her newfound knowledge back home to her own garden, where she built a big bed, put a trench in it and planted expensive asparagus crowns, covering them with soil.

“Unfortunately I didn’t do enough research,” she admits now. “I didn’t realise that asparagus doesn’t like the soil I’ve got. We’ve got a very clay soil and they hate it, a bit like rhubarb.

“Asparagus crowns are expensive. I put quite a few in and it cost quite a lot of money, and it takes a few years before you can crop properly from them. But then (I got) nothing.

(Alamy Stock Photo)

“The following spring I was looking at them thinking surely something will come up – and I got one spear which was smaller than a Biro, it was a shoelace size. At this point I was full of righteous indignation. I blamed the poor-quality crowns, the weather, anything but myself.

“Then I looked up (how to grow them) and what I hadn’t done was put plenty of grit into the soil. They need sand and grit, a light soil.

“For about five years, I thought, they won’t die, I’ll just keep going. But it was a big failure.”

In the end she dug the plants out and built the bed somewhere else, added the right soil with lots of good manure and grit and sand.

“Now I have a really good asparagus bed but it’s taken me years because of that first mistake. It’s only a five or six week season, but I think it’s worth it.”

You have to be patient with asparagus, as you shouldn’t cut it the first two years so the energy goes back into the plant, but after three years of installing the new bed, Quentin was getting a proper crop.

Her advice to gardeners who have never grown asparagus before is: “Take advice. I thought I knew better, just like when I planted horseradish and it took over the whole garden, after people had said to me ‘Plant it in a bucket’.”

With mature beds, allow some of the asparagus spears to remain unpicked and go to seed, fade to yellow and fall over, so that all of the energy from the ferns goes back into the asparagus crown to ensure that there will be a plentiful crop the following year, she suggests.

“The fronds will bend at the waist and once they’ve done that you cut back to soil level, take them away and put them on the compost heap, then cover the crowns with a nice mulch so they will get plenty to eat over the winter and will be protected from frost.”

Now she enjoys the fruits of her labour gently steamed and drizzled with butter, or dipped in  runny egg yolk, or baked in the oven with a little olive oil and salt flakes. Steamed cooled asparagus is also delicious with hollandaise or mayonnaise.

Quentin concludes: “I hope one day to replicate the abundance of the amazing asparagus bed that I discovered by accident among the weeds, all those years ago.”

Drawn To The Garden by Caroline Quentin is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £20. Available now