Cooking Brussel Sprouts | Site and Soil | Varieties | Sowing | Transplanting | Watering | Picking | Pests
Unlike so many common vegetables that originated in other parts of the world, the ancient ancestor of cabbages, or which the Brussels sprout is a form, is native to northern Europe, though not to Ireland. It does not take a great leap of imagination to see the similarities and close relationship between cabbage and Brussels sprout. A cabbage similarly has a stem with buds in each leaf axil but the buds do not develop unless the head, the main bud, is removed. With sprouts the side buds develop while the head is still on, although it is interesting that it is an old grower's trick to remove the top to encourage the top-most buds to develop.
The common name of Brussels sprout is related to the fact the this form of cabbage was first recorded in Belgium about 1750, but may have been grown in that region, in some form, since the Middle Ages. Sprouts have been popular in the past because they offer green vegetables in winter. They are handy to use in that only the amount required need be picked while cabbage requires a whole head to be taken. Sprouts have own distinctive, nutty flavour, albeit cabbage-like, although this does not recommend them to every taste. Too big for most modern gardens, they are worth growing if you like them and there are smaller varieties.
Cooking Brussel sprouts
Although Brussels sprouts can be eaten raw, they are generally cooked usually by quick boiling or steaming, but they can be stir-fried, finely sliced, and they can be baked with cheese in the oven. They have quite good nutritional value, like that of other green vegetables, good levels of Vitamin C and useful amounts of other vitamins and minerals, most of which are retained when not over-cooked. Cooling the cooked sprouts and re-heating quickly gets over the ‘tired sprout' problem that has done so much to spoil the image of an excellent vegetable.
Site and soil
Brussels sprouts are easy to grow. They tend to become too rank and vigorous on rich soil, so reasonably fertile ground that drains well but does not go dry is ideal. Too much nitrogen, from manure or rich compost, can cause leafy growth, the sprouts opening into a leafy rosette rather than making a tight bud. They need full sunshine.
Older varieties such as ‘Bedford Winter Harvest' are suitable for gardens because they crop over a longer period. F1 hybrids are suitable for commercial production but tend to come in too close for the garden. The F1 hybrid ‘Peer Gynt' is reliable and popular in gardens because of its compact size. It crops in October and November. It could be followed by the F1 hybrid ‘Topline', for instance, which crops to March. Some modern varieties, such as ‘Romulus' and ‘Montgomery' are mild-tasting and sweeter.
The seeds are sown outdoors between mid-March and mid-April. For garden purposes, it is not essential to sow very early. Sow into fine, well tilled garden soil.
The young plants are lifted and transplanted to their final positions during May and June. Spacing can be 60 cm square and up to 90 cm square for large-growing varieties, although this would be little used gardens. The wide spacing gives taller plants that carry sprout over a longer period, but they are also inclined to topple over in a windy garden. The planting ground should be quite firm.
It is generally not necessary to water sprouts, except when first transplanted to get them established. Otherwise water only if there is a dry spell of more than a week or ten days. Too much watering leads to leafy growth.
The sprouts can be picked as soon as they are of a usable size and still quite small, using the lowest ones first. They can be sliced off the stem with a knife, if it proves difficult to break them off.
Sprouts are susceptible to the usual cabbage family pests, such as cabbage root flies, cabbage mealy aphid, slugs and pigeons. The aphid is a form of greenfly that is particularly damaging to sprouts. It suffers from cabbage diseases too, such as leaf spot and white blister, but these are not a great problem in gardens.