Brussels sprouts should not be pushed back

(Photos by Lee Reich)

Just as peas are the vegetable of spring and tomatoes are the vegetable of summer, Brussels sprouts are the vegetable of autumn. They need a long season to grow, starting their life in early spring, growing all summer, then flourishing in cool weather, ideally with some frost. This seasonality brings out the best of them, in terms of flavors.

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

My previous efforts have always resulted in log-sized shoots on plants four feet tall that in their youth collapsed to the ground. It is only after the elongated stems of the plants have created a solid base that the rising stems more or less curl upward according to the original plan. Its youthful extravaganza wastes and scrambles lower shoots, sprawling plants demanding even more space – a problem in my heavily planted garden.

Gardening books, even written by gardeners in Britain, where Brussels sprouts are held in high regard, have been of no help. I gleaned the guidelines from these books in what I call “The Four Myths of Growing Brussels Sprouts”. I list them below to help you avoid them, followed by my talk on “The True Method of Growing Brussels Sprouts” and, as a bonus, a short autobiographical account in “Why Did I Once Reject Them”).

The number one myth of growing Brussels sprouts is that the build-up of soil around the base of plants keeps them upright. If only it was true ! Over a hundred years ago, the great French gardener Vilmorin-Andrieux wrote that there was no point in hilling, so I never tried it.

Myths number two and three both force shoot development and are more grounded in plant physiology than other myths. Number two advocates pinching the tip of the stem towards the end of the growing season. Myth number three suggests removing the lower leaves when sprouts start to form.

These two guidelines stop the flow of hormones that suppress bud development. On my plants at least, the shoots, which are just compressed stems and leaves, take that freedom to heart and start to grow into shoots rather than growing in size.

The last myth, myth number four, claims that firming the soil when planting Brussels sprouts results in firmer sprouts. Here we have a case of misplaced cause and effect. I can also (but not) loosen the soil for loose leaf lettuce.

This year my Brussels sprouts are the best ever. Without any pinching, large fatty shoots already dress the stems from head to toe. The plants stand like soldiers gathered in their beds. Here is a non-myth, number one of the true Brussels sprout growing method: plant Brussels sprouts in their youth and they will start and stay skyward. A three-foot-high metal stake next to each plant, with a loop of string to keep the stem and stake intimate, is all that’s needed.

Brussels sprouts are very greedy, particularly greedy in nitrogen. All the fertility in my garden comes from a lot of home-made compost. Every year I cover all the beds in my vegetable garden with a blanket at least an inch deep, which by my calculations should be enough to feed the intensively planted vegetables for an entire season.

Except, maybe, the Brussels sprouts.

Making sure the plants are well nourished is number two in the true method of growing Brussels sprouts. Just to be on the safe side, I sprinkle soybean meal, an organic fertilizer rich in nitrogen, into the Brussels sprouts bed. The usual role of soybean meal in agriculture is as animal feed. I buy it from a food store.

As an organic fertilizer, the nitrogen in soybean meal is slowly released through microbial action throughout the season into the soil in a form that plants can use. Heat and humidity increase microbial activity, which works 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 have received recommendations for a number of varieties to grow. Gustus, Hestia and Prince Marvel are a few that come to mind. They all sucked for me.

This year I planted the nearly century-old Catskill variety, the name of which seems appropriate at least for growing here in the Hudson Valley. So number three in the real 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 related species, are attacked by various species of “cabbage worms” (as they are called, but they are really caterpillars). The caterpillars, born from the eggs of those cheerful white butterflies that flutter among the plants on sunny days, poke holes in the leaves and leave behind their dark green droppings. Number four of the real method of growing Brussels sprouts is controlling the cabbage caterpillars.

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

An organic spray is easier. Very effective but non-toxic to most creatures (including you and me) is a spray of Bacillus thuringienses, a natural bacterium extracted from the soil. This material is more easily remembered as Bt, packaged under trade names such as Thuricide, Dipel and Monterey Bt

And now, to briefly discuss 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 home, when I was young, Brussels sprouts were just boiled, the more the better. This method really took hold when I was at an agricultural conference in Scotland. Meals were served in a university cafeteria, and the cooks really knew how to boil and still boil Brussels sprouts. Yuck!

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 that this vegetable tends to be cooked “boiled to death”.

My sprout culture and cooking have improved since then. Soon I will be enjoying the first shoots of this season. Fresh Brussels sprouts last a long time until fall, they will be there for several weeks of fresh consumption.

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