Sunday, October 28, 2007

Brussels Sprouts: A Lesson in Patience

I experienced a serious dose of plant envy when visiting friends in California last December. Seeing the rows of bright purple 'Falstaff' Brussels sprouts, I knew I had to have them in my garden.

I started them in late winterm, and they germinated pretty quickly. In a few weeks, I had a handful of promising starts. I planted them amongst the Swiss Chard 'Bright Lights' for an instant rainbow effect in my veggie patch. They stood proud like little soldiers in the soil.

Brussels sprouts behind the Swiss chard

Brussels sprouts are named for the country in which they originated and are related to mustard. For those who have never seen Brussels sprouts growing in the field or an entire stalk in the market, the starts look like a loose cabbage on a stem. As the main stalk grows and new leaves form on top, the stems of the older leaves (petioles) are angled out at a 45-degree angle. In between the petiole and main stalk is where the sprout forms starting out as small as a pea.

Now I am getting impatient with my crop. The sprouts are the size of almonds, but I should already have full-sized sprouts ready for cooking. I've been growing these plants for what seems like forever. The time for maturity for Brussels sprouts is around 100 days, so I guess my crop is doing okay given the lack of summer sun. It's easy to blame the weather when things aren't going your way, right? I feel no shame in bringing up how the Pacific Northwest was gypped out of summer this year.

Plus, mine have are struggling with slugs, snails, and grey aphids, yet seem to be plugging along. However, some of them are not standing so proudly anymore. Instead they're doing back flips. Maybe I should have staked them? Yesterday I found bright green caterpillars feasting on the leaves. Arg! I plucked them off and tossed them over the fence--this is my method of pest management.

I am really tempted to put them out of their misery and till them under. I'll then spread more cover crop seed to enrich the soil for next year. In the meantime, I'll buy them at Pike Place Market where they're advertised as "Little Green Blobs of Death." Brussels sprouts are a great side dish. The trick is to buy fresh and not to overcook them. Eldon prepares delicious Brussels sprouts using a recipe from the Bouchon cookbook (Bouchon is Thomas Keller's bistro next to The French Laundry near Napa, CA) featuring creme fraiche, mustard, and bacon.

Will I try them growing Brussels sprouts again next year? I like a challenge and I'm a sucker for purple plants so I most likely will. I may plant them against a wall for more warmth especially if we have (hopefully not!) a similar summer next year.

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