Brussels sprouts taste better when harvested after a spell of frost

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Brussels Sprouts Farm. Image by Florin Birjoveanu from PixabayBrussels Sprouts Farm. Image by Florin Birjoveanu from PixabayWhen you prepare them the right way, Brussels sprouts have a mild, sweet, almost nutty flavour, but when they're overcooked, they have a bitter taste with a slimy texture, and a strong, sulphur-like smell, giving them a bad rap, especially with children. However, Brussels sprouts are finally getting their due, with simple yet creative recipes from around the world taking centre-stage in homes and restaurants alike.

And, the good news is that they actually taste better when they are hit with a slight frost, so why not try your hand at growing Brussels sprouts, they can be grown in just about any home vegetable garden.  As long as you give them what they love and have the patience to wait for this slow maturing, late season vegetable, you will be rewarded with a long harvest season.

Brussels sprouts belong to the cabbage family and by vegetable standards, are quite youthful. The first rough description of this cute little green sphere was recorded in 1587, and respected botanists as recently as the seventeenth century referred to it only as something they had heard of, but had never seen. The plant later made its way to North America around 1800, eventually spreading around the world, and has been distressing children ever since.

The plant itself looks like a small palm tree, with the sprouts growing along the trunk-like stem and forming in the axils of each leaf. These sprouts look exactly like tiny little cabbages and are actually considered a type of wild cabbage, descended from wild Mediterranean kale. And because these sprouts became an important vegetable in Belgium about 400 years ago, were given the common name “Brussels Sprouts”.

Brussels sprouts and their cruciferous cousin’s, broccoli cabbage, cauliflower, kale, broccoli, collard greens, and bok choy, are colloquially referred to as “Cole crops” and are all members of the Brassica family. The green variety is the most commonly grown type of Brussels sprouts, but there are red ones too.

Health Benefits:

Cruciferous vegetables such as Brussels sprouts have sulphur-containing compounds which during digestion break down other active compounds that may prevent cancer from developing in some organs. In addition, these sulphur compounds are known to reduce ulcer risk by limiting Helicobacter pylori overgrowth and preventing bacteria from clinging to the stomach wall.

Due to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory power, Brussels sprouts may reduce the risk of chronic diseases, including cancer and heart disease. Simply eating more Brussels sprouts and other cruciferous veggies may help protect against cancers of the stomach, lungs, kidney, breasts, bladder, and prostate.

Their anti-inflammatory compounds protect cells from DNA damage, and helps manage conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and obesity.

These low-calorie nutritionally dense vegetables are also low-carb, with just 8 grams per cup raw, including 3 grams as fibre. They are an excellent source of protein and provide a range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Only one cup of cooked Brussels sprouts pack over 250% of the recommended daily intake for vitamin K, which in addition to helping the blood to clot, also plays a role in bone health and may help protect against bone loss. They are also a great source of calcium, and a single cup gives over 150% of the minimum daily vitamin C allowance.

Several studies have linked an increased intake of cruciferous vegetables to a decreased risk of diabetes. This is likely due to their antioxidant power and fibre content. Fibre helps regulate blood sugar and insulin levels. Brussels sprouts also contain an antioxidant called “alpha-lipoic acid” that’s been studied for its potential ability to help improve insulin function.

Brussels sprouts are good for high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and the carotenoids they contain are also good for your eyes

For health reasons, and specifically for detox, cruciferous vegetables are best eaten raw or lightly steamed. However, eating them in any form is protective and beneficial for your health.

Read the caution at the end of this article.

Brussels Sprouts Casserole. Image by Lebensmittelfotos from PixabayBrussels Sprouts Casserole. Image by Lebensmittelfotos from PixabayIn the Kitchen:

No longer are Brussels sprouts misunderstood and cast aside as a lame bitter vegetable hated by kids and adults alike. They're finally getting their due with creative recipes that turn them into tiny slider buns, cheddar-loaded crostini’s, and more. Whether they are steamed, sautéed, grilled or baked, there is a world of Brussels sprouts recipes on the internet, so find the ones your family will enjoy the most and start eating more Brussels sprouts for good health. 

They can be sprinkled with olive oil and roasted in the oven until caramelised, together with some red chillies, or perhaps with whole cloves of garlic and just a bit of Parmesan cheese.  Sautéed with bacon, fennel seed and dill, they are simply irresistible, or you could try honey and balsamic vinegar for a totally different taste.

And, if you thought Brussels sprouts couldn’t get any better, try marinating them for a while in a bowl with olive oil, vinegar, honey, mustard,  red pepper flakes and salt, before  putting them on skewers and grilling them on the braai. They get caramelized and charred in a super-addictive way, and if garnished with Parmesan cheese before serving, will have everyone wanting seconds.

Companion Planting:

The nature of companion planting in vegetable gardens is basically planting one or more different species of plants which benefit one another, in close proximity to each other.  This creates diversity in the garden, making it less likely for pests and diseases to spread rampantly through the vegetable plot.  For example, while the cruciferous gang of vegetables may like to hang together in the garden, the fact that they share the same pests and disease problems makes them less than ideal companions for each other. However, if they are planted with table celery, celeriac, rosemary, sage and thyme, these companion plants will help to deter the cabbage moth. Table celery will also help to deter snails and slugs

To help keep cabbage root maggots away from more valuable plants, try planting radish nearby as a trap or bait plant. The cabbage flies will be attracted to the radish, and once they have been infested, you can pull the radishes up and destroy them together with the cabbage root maggots and their remaining eggs.

Brussels Sprouts Plan. Image by Ben Kerckx from PixabayBrussels Sprouts Plan. Image by Ben Kerckx from PixabayCultivation:

While Brussels have a reputation for being tricky to grow, it’s quite possible to grow these tasty treats in the home garden if you give them what they need, and if the weather cooperates. Because of their fondness for cool weather and short day lengths, in warm climates Brussels sprouts seeds are sown in late summer, to be planted out into the garden in autumn for a winter crop. They prefer temperatures between 7 and 24°C, love cold weather and are very hardy to frost, even tolerating temperatures as low as -6°C, but for no longer than a day or two. Hot climates where the temperature never approaches freezing, are not really suitable for growing Brussels sprouts.

Although there are hybrids which will extend their growing season, as with broccoli, growing traditional varieties of Brussels sprouts in summer when the weather is hot and the days long,  will cause the sprouts to open, making them unsuitable for eating. Also, summer varieties of Brussels sprouts are affected by many more pests than those growing during the cooler months when these pests are not active.

Brussels sprouts love full sun, and will tolerate light shade but this will slow their maturity. They require soil which drains well but which is well composted and deeply dug over, with an added dressing of organic 2:3:2. They thrive in neutral to slightly sweet alkaline soils with a pH of 6 to 7, so if your soil is acidic add some agricultural lime to the planting beds about 2 weeks before planting out. After transplanting, apply a thick layer of mulch for moisture retention and weed suppression.

Brussels sprouts can grow quite large, so allow space for the plants to spread by spacing them about 50cm apart, and leaving about 60cm between the rows, depending on the variety grown. Under ideal conditions the stems can grow quite tall and will need staking. Also, heaping the soil up around the base of the stems as they grow will provide extra support for the stems and lessen the risk of wind damage.

Brussels sprouts require a moist soil at all times, but not a saturated soil, so consistent watering is essential for a good crop. Feed with a high nitrogen fertiliser at 60 grams per square meter one month after planting out and again after the main heads have been harvested.

Harvesting:

Although there are some shorter-season varieties of Brussels sprouts, most varieties have an extremely long growing season, as much as 130 days from sowing to harvesting, or about 90 days from the date you transplanted them out into the garden

Generally, the sprouts are ready to harvest when they are about 2.5cm in diameter. Some varieties will mature all at the same time and must be harvested all at once, but most can be harvested as they mature, starting from the bottom upwards. Twist, snap, or cut off the sprouts when they are hard, compact, and a deep green, as yellowing sprouts do not taste good. Pulling off the sprouts is made easier if you remove the leaf below the sprout first. For the best flavour, harvest after frosty weather.

Once you have harvested the lower sprouts, to quicken the development of the remaining ones and to encourage the plant to grow taller and produce additional fruits, remove the lower leaves from the stems of the plant.

After harvesting, a second crop of Brussels sprouts may begin to grow at the base of the stem. These will not be as tight as the first buds, but are still edible.

The stalk is actually edible as well, but it has a tough outer layer you might want to remove. The leafy tops are also edible and can be cooked as greens. And cutting the tops is a good way to speed up the development of the remaining sprouts, at the end of the season.

If you produce more than you can eat fresh, Brussels sprouts can be frozen and used during the summer months when it is too hot to grow them.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

Luckily, this plant is fairly pest and disease free, and during the cold winter months there are not many insects to contend with, but often during or just before harvesting time, when the weather starts to warm up, grey aphids may suddenly appear out of nowhere so have some organic insecticidal soap handy for spraying.

One of the most common pests are Cabbage loopers and the most effective chemicals to use are neem-based pesticides, which interfere with the growth of young caterpillars.

Cabbage root maggots affect cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and Brussels sprouts, and they seem to cause the most damage in late summer. You can’t see them but you will notice wilting leaves, and sometimes a hint of a blue cast or yellowing in the foliage. In early spring the cabbage fly, which resembles a small grey housefly emerges, and after feeding lays its eggs at the base of Cole crop seedlings. The eggs can often be seen in the soil near the base of the main stem. Larvae hatch and tunnel through the soil to feed on the roots. After feeding, they become cabbage root fly pupae and prepare for the transformation to become cabbage root flies. Maggots are difficult to control, because they hatch and feed underneath the soil, so you may only know they are there when you notice stunted growth or wilting foliage. As the larvae tunnel through the roots, the plants will wilt and shrivel. If you pull up the damaged plants, you will see the tiny maggots on the roots. Inevitably, the plant will die.

To help control cabbage root maggots, practice crop rotation, and if you see flies in the air, scout for eggs in the soil. Run your fingers through the top layers near the bases of your plants and destroy any eggs found. To protect the plants from egg laying you can buy row covers, or try installing ‘cabbage collars’ at the base of the stem. These can be bought or made from cardboard or carpet underlays etc. and are simply a skirt around the base of the plant which protects the flies from laying there eggs there. Sticky traps in the garden are effective at trapping cabbage flies, and are available at most nurseries. Turn over the soil in autumn and again in spring to expose overwintering fly pupae. What the frost does not kill off the birds will eat. If you’d like to keep cabbage root maggots away from more valuable plants, try planting radish as a trap or bait plant. Many maggots will be attracted to the radish, and once they have been infested, you can pull the radishes up and destroy them. If cabbage root maggots are a serious problem in your garden, avoid growing Brussels sprouts in summer.

Harlequin bugs are small and brightly marked with black and yellow, affecting Cole and other crops by sucking the plant juices in summer. For small gardens you can hand pick them off the plants or use a suitable organic pesticide for beetles. If you notice barrel-shaped eggs attached to the undersides of the leaves, these can also be picked off by hand. If these bugs are a serious problem in your garden, avoid growing Brussels sprouts in summer.

Powdery mildew is occasionally a problem, but it’s usually not too severe and can be treated with copper oxychloride.  For a home DIY, combine one tablespoon baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon of liquid, non-detergent soap with one gallon of water, and spray the mixture liberally on the plants. You can use a mild liquid detergent but non-detergent soap like Castile’s is best.

Other diseases include blackleg, black rot, and clubroot, and disease control is best obtained by rotating the crop each year. Clubroot is a soil borne fungal disease that can infect Brussels sprouts. The cause is almost always bad drainage, and there is no cure. Remove all infected plants, and in order to eradicate the fungus completely, do not grow any brassica's in the same bed for several years. Clubroot is also diminished when you raise the soil pH to about 7.0.

If loose, fluffy sprouts develop it is usually as a result of excess nitrogen.

Caution:

Despite all the health benefits of Brussels sprouts, check with your doctor before you add them to your diet if you take blood thinners, because like some other cruciferous veggies, Brussels sprouts are high in vitamin K, which helps your blood clot. Too much vitamin K could prevent blood thinners from working as well as they should. Ask your doctor how often it's safe for you to eat Brussels sprouts.

If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), like other cruciferous veggies, Brussels sprouts have a type of carbohydrate that your body can't easily break down. This can cause you to have belly pain, gas, and either diarrhoea or constipation.

The information contained within this website is for educational purposes only, documenting the traditional uses of specific plants as recorded through history. Always seek advice from a medical practitioner before starting a home treatment programme.