Monday 8 June 2015

Unorthodox ways with Brussels Sprouts

If I have any remaining reputation I might lose it today. I confess to cruel exploitation of sprouts and being not quite normal. 
I do claim to achieve nearly six months supply of greens with about one hundred and twenty individual portions from a single sowing of twenty F1 hybrid Montgomery plants! I love them so much I eat plentiful plate portions. Four times the delicate amounts that guests take when we entertain. I wonder why? They do come back for seconds! 

When I think about it, my total yield is small  - about six  large individual portions per plant. That’s actually not very much but I do pick my greens very selectively cutting out yellow and brown blemishes while I am still on the vegetable patch. When they go inside they go straight into the steamer. As a none digger and normally a none composter all my sprout debris goes straight on the ground. The earthworms love me. Yah-boo to slugs and snails, I have very few and if they are eating my discarded detritus - as nature intended - good luck to them.

Move over Mark Willis and Sue Garrett! You will never grow sprouts like mine! You won’t want to! I am unable to take your beautiful pictures of pristine delectable vegetables. I am afraid mine are never as healthy as yours. I really admire you. It’s just that I don’t have your energy, expertise and patience, 
People never  admire my vegetable plot and visitors never comment as they walk swiftly by. As soon as my veg looks anything that might be worthy of a picture they tend to go in the pan.

Sprout and broccoli seedlings in early May. Ready for planting.
The world is not really ready to hear how I sow my brassica seeds. Sown in unwashed standard plastic seed trays filled fairly high with my already dampened lovely silty garden soil, the roughly scattered  thirty or so seeds are scrabbled in with my fingers. My various brassicas are sown mainly in April in my unheated greenhouse. I never use silly propagators that create excessive humidity and force soft plant growth susceptible to damping off which is a disease I never experience.
(It is NOT my advice to you to use garden soil rather than compost for indoor propagation, especially if there is clubroot in your garden. It’s just that my own soil is surprisingly suitable).

When I plant sometime in May, our local weather systems invariably mean the Spring soil surface is desperately dry. I take a generous hole for each plant and apply to each hole at least a half a gallon of water before planting straight from my seed tray. When planted the plants are still in a small depression so I can water. Otherwise water runs away on my hydrophobic soil.
If I don’t forget I miserly scatter a couple of dozen slug pellets to the complete planting area - around but away from individual plants. If I am sufficiently aware I scatter the slug pellets the evening before. I prefer to plant with dead slugs around rather then live ones!
I usually thinly scatter some YaraMila fertiliser - or similar. On very rare occasions I might work half a trowel-full of dolomitic limestone into the hole. I have no idea whether this lime does any good but it does supply calcium and magnesium and raises pH in the starting root zone.

That damned enviromesh

That wonderful enviromesh  I plant two plants at each station and thin out later. Two chances with any slugs!

Covering with enviromesh is mandatory. Because of the damned pigeons! - or more usually the collared doves. Lovely birds, but they can’t have my plants! 
Harry, fount of all wisdom, knew almost everything about birds. His lovely pictures grace this blog in my ornithological posts! He once told me that collared doves did not eat green shoots! Harry was not a gardener, hated most vegetables and never ate his greens! What a triumph to prove him wrong. It was perhaps they only time I was right!

I graduated from fleece to stiffer almost everlasting enviromesh three years ago. I leave the large 5x2 metre sheets intact and use bricks to both raise and hold down the sheets. This means my plants are planted in blocks which I like to do for other reasons too. Unfortunately the ‘pigeons’ get greedier each year and continue eating further into early Summer! Previously I only needed to raise my cover a brick high. Now it’s quite a castle before I dare take away the protection! 
And these days they are now starting to nibble the old plants January to March. In a normal Spring my sprouts outgrow this damage but this year we had so many cold dry windy days this did not happen. My sprouting broccoli suffered most. Indeed if we did not eat sprout sprouts (sic) as you will hear about later, we would have had very few greens for the table.

Sorry I have no picture of Summer sprout plants. Sprouting broccoli anyone?

Pests and diseases - with special reference to ‘yellows’

Many gardeners tell me they don’t grow brassicas because they are a dirty crop. They are right. Unless like commercial growers they do a lot of spraying. Although I have no personal issues with spraying or eating purchased sprayed vegetables I rarely spray my brassicas. Life is too short and what is the odd whitefly or aphid between friends?
 (Fortunately brassica whitefly is NOT the insect that attacks indoor plants).

I conceived this post as a short one about brussels sprouts yellows. Sorry it has grown like Topsy. 
Unfortunately last year I failed to order my seeds of variety Montgomery from Mole Seeds. I discovered Mole Seeds two years ago and now unashamedly promote them! Lazily I bought instead a different F1 hybrid from a local garden centre - with sprouts it must be a F1 hybrid. Unlike my Monty it proved to be susceptible to yellows.
The yellow coronet thrilled me
When I examined my sprout plants on a sunny early December day and found them with a beautiful golden coronet of yellow dying leaves I was delighted! For blogging purposes please understand. I thought I had a  good story.
The story revolves around the fact that in normal circumstances the fungal disease which is the cause of the problem only kills expendable leaves. Not the green head and not the developing sprouts. In biological terms what is going on?

Fighting a pathogen comes at a cost to a plant as it has to expend it’s resources in the conflict. Old leaves in low light intensities and low temperatures are of limited value. The best strategy is to lose the skirmish in order to win the war. The plant conserves its resources in the green leafy rosette at the top and in the sprouts on the thick stems. After all the actual sprouts are the buds where accumulated food is stored on this biennial plant.

I was told about this phenomenon by no lesser person than a former Vice-Principal of Askham Bryan College. Friend, colleague, agriculturist and very keen vegetable grower it had to be true. He told me that the pathogen in question was downy mildew. I have recently searched the net and can find no confirmation. Why should I let a mere detail spoil a good story? I examined my yellow leaves and to me it looked like a different disease, one called ring-spot.
Peter Williams tells me that the tidy gardener can safely remove these yellow leaves. I don’t tend to bother!
If there is a lesson for the vegetable grower it is that there is no need to panic when you suddenly see such yellow leaves. It’s completely natural.
You can see that it is ringspot

Scruffy to leave the dead leaves
 The sprouts are undamaged by the disease
Sprouts are always attacked by cabbage white butterfly from early August. I have used many different strategies to kill them including spraying which works very well. In the past I have used that none-u biological control Bacillus thuringensis brought back from my family visits to France. I also bring back a packet for ace vegetable grower former colleague Mike Ashford who is hugely enthusiastic about how effective it is!
Considering I only grow about 20 sprout plants I have reverted to merely squashing the caterpillars and rubbing my thumb over the eggs! I miss some of course but what is the harm of a few holes on my vigorous plants?
Any volunteers to squash them
Whitefly is a bit of a problem. If it builds up too much I have been know in November to set it back with a single spray. 

I have become very tolerant of pest and disease. I had an unfortunate experience several years ago when all of Brenda’s family were with us for Christmas. Brenda’s son Peter who as a cook is a whiz up to Mark Willis’s high standard was helping Brenda prepare the Christmas dinner. Quelle horreur (they live in France) he found several fat aphids in the middle of each of the sprouts. To my humiliation they went straight into the bin! So much for impressing the Mills clan. Young people are so very fussy about food.

Tasty sprouts

What really excites me about sprouts is the long season of picking from a single sowing. My mouth really waters when I think of sprout sprouts towards the end of the season! 
Montgomery is a late variety and we eat our first ‘proper’ sprouts in late November. I don’t want any before then - they are too dirty! I welcome the first hard frost that kills off the whitefly and enhances plant sugars that improve flavour.  We take the biggest sprouts first and the plants continue to grow making more sprouts at the top. By mid January newly grown sprouts are really clean and I have to trim less away when I pick them! I regret to tell you none of my sprouts would find their way into Tesco!

By the end of February when some gardeners would be thinking of throwing their old plants away it gets really exciting. On warmer days the plants make new growth which accelerates as it goes into Spring. The growth might be from sprouts that we failed to eat, perhaps they had been black or brown ones. As the season progresses newly developing shoots come from all over the place and the character of growth changes. Eventually you get developing flowers just like sprouting broccoli. I love them all! The green shoots are my very favourite vegetable! This year it was mid May before I conceded and started to feed daily two or three sprout haulms to Cathi’s rheas. They come running each time they see me.
I just lop the old plants leaving all the roots in the ground. This year I under sowed with broadcast beetroot and leek seed three weeks before their final removal! I don’t normally do this it was just this time to demonstrate ‘proof of principle’. Such are the perks of no dig gardening.

The changing seasonal nature of Roger’s greens
A single February portion A little desperate but delicious when cleaned
 Sprout broccoli mix
March mix 
Cold meat and two veg
Another two weeks and these will be ready in late April
It makes my mouth water
Last boiling in early May. The sprouts have outlasted the sprouting broccoli

They have given good service
The under-sowing has needed plenty of water. The old sprouts have dehydrated the ground
Feeding the rheas

Rhea ration. I might have sneaked another boiling
His favourite food
Nearly all gone
Morals from my ramblings

  1. Never take gardening advice from me!
  2. There are numerous ways to grow vegetables. Methods might depend on your soil and your climate. The most significant guiding factors depend on your personality! Most of a huge range of variations work!
  3. Although I have only hinted, many gardeners not only are so keen that they sow their crops far too early, they also remove them far too soon.
  4. Growing vegetables is a great deal of fun but is not usually economic. Although as a Yorkshireman I pride myself that my produce is worth more than my expenditure for many gardeners this is not true. I know many gardening friends whose costs of production are several times the worth of their produce. Of course I am looking at this the wrong way round. Growing vegetables is a very cheap hobby. Much cheaper than golf!
  5. And the true joy is that your vegetables you grow yourself taste better than any others. The placebo effect is a very strong one!
  6. Today in early June is not too late to sow.
  7. You will only get super delicious sprout sprouts if you grow them yourself.
Links to relevant reading

Mole Seeds - there are so many seeds in their packets, there will be plenty for the following year


  1. Pristine vegetables - moi? We don't wash seed trays either. I'd have agreed with Harry about collared doves - yours must be crossed with wood pigeons

    1. Ah I think you might have caught me out. I bow to your greater knowledge about birds!
      I can't actually quite remember my argument with Harry. It might have actually been pigeons we were talking about! He would be laughing away that I was wrong yet again. Whatever the bird in question he watched them having a go at my brassicas and admitted his error.
      And I have also allowed you Sue to get a dig in at my interest in hybridity

    2. You kn :)ow me Roger always one for digging!

  2. I'll treat the mention as a compliment, Roger, so Thanks! My approach to growing veg is very different to yours in many ways, but just as rewarding. With such a small space available though, I have to carefully nurture each and every plant. This year I am growing only four Brussels Sprout plants, so I can't afford to lose even one. I agree with you though that some people are too fussy about the appearance of their veg, and want it all to be perfect, which is unreasonable. BTW, what does Rhea taste like??? (Well, you can eat Ostrich, so maybe its similar...) Fed on a diet of brassicas its probably nice - the equivalent of "grass-fed" beef.

    1. I hope Cathi isn't reading this!

    2. Yes it was a compliment Mark ... and also an illustration of how we can all garden in different ways and derive huge pleasure out of it and in our own cases the double pleasure when we write about it!
      Cathi similarly gets huge pleasure from her Soay sheep and her rheas. As the rheas are all male she does not even get eggs and she certainly does eat them or the sheep.

  3. I think you're right that pigeons are getting more of a problem. We've just lost the whole of what promised to be a fantastic crop of redcurrants to pigeons. They stripped and broke the branches and the fruit was all still green. My husband now wants an air rifle!

    1. Fortunately the pigeons ignore my red currants and blackcurrants although they are near my sprouts. Perhaps they prefer the sprouts!

  4. I have to endorse your seven point morals Roger although I must question some of the logic:-) It is interesting however that many comments point towards damage particularly from wood pigeons, at one time there were cereal crops grown in this area which kept the pigeons and the farmers guns pretty busy, now there are none so the woodies have moved into the gardens and allotments as first rate scavengers although the local cats and the occasional sparrow hawk do help to keep the numbers down. In the same way you weren't able to get within a field's width of a magpie but these are now nesting in my garden and predating on the smaller birds nests.


    1. I think pigeons are a beautiful bird and I find some aspects of their capabilities such as their flying skills fascinating Rick. I fear I might take a sentimental line on the need to control them. You mention thieving magpies. Corvids are the subject of my next post on Tuesday and I get carried away with their intelligence and you might yet again question my logic!


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