|With their clusters of buds that look like tiny cabbages, Brussels sprouts are a rewarding plant to grow.|
Kitchen gardening is all about planting seeds which you have never sown before and being proud of your harvest. For me, growing Brussels has been a personal achievement.
The name comes from the city of Brussels in Belgium where, it is believed, selected cabbage varieties were cultivated in the 18th century. Clusters of tiny leaf buds resembling miniature cabbages grew along a thick stem and became famous as Brussels sprouts. They were named Brassica oleracea variety gemmifera, or simply, ‘garden cabbage bearing gems’. Closely related to kale, kohlrabi, cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage, Brussels sprouts are dark green and the miniature cabbages are typically 1-2 inches long, which explains why they are referred to as gems. The stalk itself can grow up to 3 feet tall.
Brussels sprouts contain sulforaphane, a chemical with anticancer and antidiabetic properties, along with indole-3 carbinol which improves DNA repair in cells, making it a true treasure for any vegetable garden.
Growing Brussels sprouts in your garden
Winter is the best time to grow good quality Brussels sprouts that have compact heads. On the other hand, hot temperatures result in loose tufts. Some heat tolerant varieties can be grown in spring or early summer. Brussels sprouts will love temperatures between 7-24c˚ and yield will peak somewhere within this range.
Brussels sprouts love well-drained and fertile soil. Prepare your pot or plot by adding lots of organic compost to the soil. Your aim is to achieve a PH level of 6-6.5. If the soil gets too acidic add lime.
Sow the seeds ¼ deep in a 14-inch terracotta pot or any other container of that size. For planting on a vegetable patch, transplant your 3-inch seedlings 20-24 inches apart with the same distance between rows. Brussels sprouts are slow growers and most of the varieties are harvested in 90-180 days.
Use companion plants such as beans, mint, dill, garlic, basil, sage and onions to repel insects and get better yields. Cabbage worms and aphids can ruin the experience of growing Brussels sprouts if you do not inspect your plants regularly for signs of pest attack. If you sense some trouble, use organic means of protecting your plants. If you see pretty white butterflies or moths fluttering over your plants, do not get too excited — they will lay eggs on your plants that will develop into cabbage worms or caterpillars.
Harvest and beyond
Brussels sprouts can be picked individually when the heads reach around 1-1.5 inches in diameter. The ones at the bottom of the stem mature first. You can also harvest the entire stem if you wish.
Brussels sprouts can easily be stored for up to three weeks by freezing. You can blanch your sprouts by following these simple steps:
- Separate each sprout from the stem and remove outer leaves.
- Wash it thoroughly to get rid of insects and dirt.
- Bring a pan of water to boil and blanch your sprouts for roughly three minutes. Leave larger ones for an extra minute.
- Now soak them in ice water for about the same length of time.
- Store in an airtight bag or a container in the refrigerator to use later.
The key to retaining most of the nutrition in your Brussels sprouts is to not overcook them.
There is nothing better than growing your own food — not only does it add flavour to your meal but is also a feast for the eyes.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, November 6th, 2011.