Brussels sprouts should not be spurned

(Photos by Lee Reich)

Just as peas are the vegetable of spring and tomatoes are the vegetable of summer, so Brussels sprouts are the vegetable of fall. They need a long season to grow, starting life in early spring, growing through the summer, and then flourishing  in cool weather, ideally with a few frosts. This seasonality brings out the best in them, flavor-wise.

I only recently began growing Brussels sprouts again, just for the challenge. I now allocate a lot of space and time in my garden for a vegetable I once spurned.

My previous efforts always resulted in marble-sized sprouts on four-foot-high plants that, in their youth, flopped to the ground. Only after the plants’ supine stems have created a firm base do the rising stems curve more or less upward according to original plan. Its youthful extravagance wastes and muddies the lower most sprouts, with the sprawling plants demanding even more space — a problem in my intensively planted garden.

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Gardening books, even by gardeners in Britain, where Brussels sprouts are held in high esteem, were no help. I gleaned the directives from these books into what I call “The Four Myths of Growing Brussels Sprouts.” I list them below to help you avoid them, followed in my discourse on “The True Method of Growing Brussels Sprouts” and, as a bonus, a short autobiographical account in “Why I Once Spurned Them”).

Myth Number One of growing Brussels sprouts posits that piling dirt up around the bases of the plants keeps them upright. If only this were true! Over a hundred years ago, the great French gardener Vilmorin-Andrieux wrote that there was no benefit in earthing up, so I have never tried it.

Myths Number Two and Three both force development of the sprouts, and are better grounded in plant physiology than are the other myths. Number Two advocates pinching out the tip of the stalk toward the end of the growing season. Myth Number Three suggests removing lower leaves as the sprouts begin to form.

These two directive stops flow of hormones that suppress bud development. On my plants at least, the sprouts, which are nothing more than compressed stems and leaves, take that freedom to heart and begin lengthen into shoots rather than fattening up.

The final myth, Myth Number Four, alleges that firming the soil when planting Brussels sprouts results in firmer sprouts. Here we have a case of misplaced cause and effect. I may as well (but do not) loosen the soil for loose-leaf lettuces.

This year my Brussels sprouts look the best ever. Without any pinching, large, fat sprouts already dress the stalks from head to toe. The plants stand upright like assembled soldiers in their bed. Here’s a non-myth, Number One of the True Method of Growing Brussels Sprouts: Stake Brussels sprouts in their youth and they will start and stay skyward. A three-foot-high metal stake next to each plant, with one loop of string to keep the stalk and the stake intimate, is all it takes.

Brussels sprouts are heavy feeder, particularly hungry for nitrogen. All my garden’s fertility comes from plenty of homemade compost. Each year I blanket all the beds in my vegetable garden with at least a one-inch-deep blanket of the stuff, which by my calculations should be enough to nourish intensively planted vegetables for a whole season. 

Except, perhaps, Brussels sprouts.

Making sure the plants are well-fed is Number Two of the True Method of Growing Brussels Sprouts. Just for insurance, I sprinkle soybean meal, an organic, high-nitrogen fertilizer, in the Brussels-sprout bed. Soybean meal’s usual role in agriculture is an animal feed. I buy it at a feed store.

As an organic fertilizer, the nitrogen in soybean meal is slowly released via microbial action all season long into the soil in a form the plants can use. Warmth and moisture increase microbial activity, which works out well because it also increases plant growth. About two pounds of soybean meal per hundred square feet of area does the trick.

The dreaded cabbage worm.

Over the years I’ve received recommendations for a number of varieties to grow. Gustus, Hestia, and Prince Marvel are some that come to mind. They’ve all been duds for me. 

This year I planted the almost hundred-year-old variety Catskill, which seems appropriate in name at least for growing here in the Hudson Valley. So Number Three of the True Method of Growing Brussels Sprouts is to grow, not necessarily Catskill, but a variety that after some trial and error does well in your garden.

Brussels sprouts, like cabbage, kale, cauliflower, and other kin, are attacked by various species of “cabbageworms” (as they’re called, but they really are caterpillars). The caterpillars, hatched from eggs of those cheery white moths that flutter among the plants on sunny days, riddle the leaves with holes and leave behind their dark green frass. Number Four of the True Method of Growing Brussels Sprouts consists of controlling the cabbage caterpillars.

Search-and-destroy is one method. Crush any cabbage caterpillar you find in situ, or flick it into a jar of soapy water to drown.

An organic spray is easier. Very effective yet nontoxic to most creatures (including you and me) is a spray of Bacillus thuringienses, a natually-occurring bacterium extracted from the soil. This material is more easily remembered under the name B.t., packaged up under such commercial names as Thuricide, Dipel, and Monterey B.t. 

And now to discuss briefly my past aversion to Brussels sprouts. Here is a vegetable that, in my opinion, can be quite delicious if properly prepared, and quite repulsive if not. In our household, when I was growing up, Brussels sprouts were just boiled, the more the better. This method really came to the fore when I was at an agricultural conference in Scotland. Meals were served in a university cafeteria, and the cooks there really knew how to boil and boil again Brussels sprouts. Yuk!

A friend with a wry sense of humor called Brussels sprouts “little green balls of death.” Maybe I misheard her, and she was just pointing out this vegetable tends to be cooked “boiled to death.”

My sprout-growing and cooking has since improved. Soon I’ll be enjoying this season’s first sprouts. Fresh Brussels sprouts last long into autumn, They’ll be around for many weeks of fresh eating.

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