Sunday, December 07, 2008

Sprouting into summer

This weekend has been one of harvesting some of the first of the summer crops, and planning for the winter crop. On Saturday, I harvested the first of the raspberries, after having to put a mesh net over them earlier in the week, designed to keep little birds, and little girls, from beating me to the crop.
On the same day, I dug the first of the new season’s potatoes, the ‘Rocket’ I planted in late August. As you will be able to work out, this is a very early season variety, not one I have grown before. I was surprised when the tops fell over about a fortnight ago, thinking they were under-watered, but no amount of watering convinced them to stand up again, so I dug them. As you will remember, I plant my potatoes in a trough filled with compost and straw, and this makes harvesting very easy. The soil falls away from the tubers and they come up very cleanly. The return was good too – not outstanding, but ample, and the first of the potatoes (the tiddlers) have already been eaten and were delicious.
That left room in the garden, so I took advantage of the chance to get some Brussels Sprouts in. These vegetables are winter standbys, and new gardeners are tricked into thinking they should be planted in late summer/early autumn, but they need planting much earlier.
Brussels Sprouts are members of the vast Brassica tribe, and descend from cabbages. The usually accepted story of their origin is that they arose as a sport in Belgium about 1750, and were exported to other European countries and England by 1800.
They have become a winter standby in Europe – and are a traditional component of English Christmas Dinner, in much the same way the new potatoes and peas are part of ours.
Brussels Sprouts are quite straightforward to grow. They need good fertile soil, so I dug a trench in the old potato ground (finding some more tubers too!) filling it with a generous layer of my own worm-filled compost. I topped this off with some lime, as it is important to keep the pH level up for brassicas, to help stop the incursion of club foot disease. Most compost has low pH anyway, so it is a good idea to add lime when applying it. I also threw a little general purpose garden fertiliser, mixed with more slow release food, as sprouts like fertile soil and they are long-term plants.
Once the soil was prepared I tramped it to make it as firm as I could – sprouts like to be planted in as firm a soil as possible - then planted and watered them in.
I bought the plants in from my nursery, as they had good, strong, healthy-looking F1 hybrid plants. You could probably still grow your own from seed, but it is getting late enough in the season to do that. I think you would be better off to buy the seedlings in if you have not already sown.
It has been my experience that it pays to buy F1 hybrid Sprouts, as they are much more reliable and more likely to give a good crop. Do not forget that these plants like a cool snap to develop their flavour fully.
When it comes to eating them, make sure the cook does not over boil the sprouts. If they are overcooked they tend to have a sulphurous taste that few people like. I like them in stir fries, or lightly steamed and served with butter and pepper. If you find you have some loose sprouts at the end of the season (and I always do) just leave them to keep on growing. In the spring, they will send out flower shoots, just like small broccoli heads. They are delicious if cut small enough, and, once again, they are great in stir fries.

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