Sprout Success

Years ago, a friend referred to Brussels sprouts as “little green balls of death;” that never exactly increased the gustatory appeal of this vegetable for me. The same could be said for “a little boiled to death,” a too common way of preparing the vegetable, and perhaps that’s what the friend had actually said.

Still, I’m always up for a horticultural challenge, even if I had never had success with Brussels sprouts. What does “lack of success” mean with Brussels sprouts? Dime-size sprouts.

Sit tight. This season my Brussels sprouts are a roaring success, and I’m going to impart to you what I learned about growing this sometimes maligned vegetable. Or, at least, what I did differently this year, which was a few things, so I’m not sure whether one or more of them was responsible for my achievement. It could even have been the weather, which I had no hand in.Brussels sprouts on plant

Brussels sprouts is a very long season vegetable, so seeds need to be sown in spring for a fall harvest. Check. I planted mine back indoors in March for transplanting in May. They could have been sown a little later, at some sacrifice of yield.

A big difference in what I did this year was that the seeds that I sowed were those of a new variety, Catskill. Although a new variety for me, Catskill is actually an old variety, first introduced in 1941 by Arthur White, of Arkport, New York. It’s billed as yielding especially large sprouts (yes) on compact stalks (nope). In previous years I grew Gustus, Hestia, and Prince Marvel, and all were duds for me.

The Catskill mountains are only an hour’s drive away from my farmden, which perhaps explains my success with the same-named variety. But, as they often say (quietly) in advertising, “your results may differ.” My suggestion is to try a few varieties until you find one that does well wherever you garden or farmden.

Brussels sprouts requires a rich, near neutral soil high in organic matter. Check. My Brussels sprouts beds have always received, as do my other vegetable beds, an annual dressing of a one-inch depth of compost. Decomposition of compost enriches the soil with a variety of nutrients, including nitrogen.

Still, another big difference in what I did this year was to give my plants an extra oomph with, in addition to the compost, a sprinkling (1 pound per 100 square feet) of soybean meal, an organic source of nitrogen.

In anticipation or hope of large plants, each Brussels sprouts plant was afforded plenty of elbow room this year, with plants two-and-a-half feet apart down the middle of the three-foot-wide bed. They were flanked on each side by a single row of early carrots which, I figured, would be harvested and out of the way by the time the Brussels sprouts plants were spreading their wings (leaves).View of bed of Brussels sprouts

My previous efforts with Brussels sprouts always resulted in three-foot-high plants that, early in their youth, flopped to the ground. Only after a plant’s supine stem had created a firm base would the end of its growing stem curve more or less upward, according to original plan. That youthful waywardness wasted and muddied lowermost sprouts, with the sprawling plant demanding even more space, which was a problem in my intensively-planted garden.

This year each plant had the companionship of a sturdy metal pole right from the get-go. Loops of string around the stalks and the stakes kept up with the plants’ upward mobility.

Pest Alert

Finally, and very important, is pest control, specifically of any one of the few leaf-eating caterpillars, colloquially called cabbage worms, which are the offspring of of those cheery, white moths that flutter among the plants on sunny days. The caterpillars also attack broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower, all relatives in the cabbage family (Brassicaceae).Cabbageworms

A very effective and nontoxic to most creatures (including to you and to me) control is spraying with Bacillus thuringienses, a naturally-occurring bacterium extracted from the soil. This material is more easily remembered under the name Bt, packaged up under such commercial names as Thuricide, Dipel, and Monterey B.t.

I checked the plants frequently through the growing season, at first just crushing any caterpillars I found and, only when the damage was getting severe, resorting to the spray. Cabbageworms, like any pest, can develop resistance to most pesticides, more likely the more that is used. 


As an aside, that potential resistance of a pest to Bt is a problem with crops developed as genetically modified organisms wit Bt toxins. Almost all commercial corn and cotton have been genetically engineered in this way; the genetic material has also been incorporated into cotton, potato, rice, eggplant, canola, tomato, broccoli, collards, chickpea, spinach, soybean, tobacco, and cauliflower.

The problem arises because a field of plants expressing the Bt toxins is akin to that whole field being sprayed with Bt all season long. There is evidence of the development of resistance to Bt by insect pests of the genetically modified crop plants.


 Stand Up Straight!

   I am particularly proud of my Brussels sprouts this year — and I haven’t even tasted them yet. How odd that I should be proud of this vegetable that I spurned in the past, often quoting a friend who referred to them as “little green balls of death.” Then I put my own twist on that description, saying that perhaps the friend meant that Brussels sprouts were only palatable a “little boiled to death.”
    I’ve come around, and decided, a couple of years ago, that Brussels sprouts were worth growing, despite their high demands on space and time. For good production in northern climates, the seeds need to be sown indoors in early March, and then harvest doesn’t start until October or sometime after the first frost. And for all that waiting, each plant — a mere single stalk with whorls of leaves from top to bottom and a sprout at the base of each leaf — takes up an area of about three feet by three feet.

Gustas Brussels sprouts, standing up straight.

Gustas Brussels sprouts, standing up straight.

    Things would be bad enough if a Brussels sprouts plant just grew straight up to fill its allotted area. But the plant can’t support itself, so in its youth it flops down on the ground. Once that supine stem has created a firm base upon which to rise, the end of the growing stem curves more or less upward according to original plan. That youthful waywardness wastes and muddies lowermost sprouts, with the sprawling plant demanding even more space, which is a problem in an intensively-planted garden.
    This summer, before the plants even had time to consider flopping down, I poked a bamboo pole into the ground next to each one, which I tied to the pole, adding ties to keep up with growth. Perhaps a bit too orderly  for a vegetable garden, but my Brussels sprouts “trees,” each now over four feet tall, look quite attractive.
    The “trees” are not likely to grow much higher because I pinched out the top bud of each plant in early September. This pinching redirects the plants energy from the highest growing point to the side shoots — which are the sprouts. All month, the sprouts have been fattening, soon to be snapped off and eaten.

Not Your Average Marigold

    I also count among this season’s successes two little-known flowers, both of which elicited “oohs and ahhs” from visitors here. One of the flowers were Signet marigolds. You might think, marigolds?, they’re okay, but more “ho hum” than “ooh and ahh.” Not so.
    Signet marigolds, Tagetes tenuifolia, are a different species from common marigolds, and they look a little different. Mostly, they’re smaller, expanding into amorphous mounds of fine, lacy, lime-green leaves, from which stare out small yellow or orange blossoms — most charming. A lemony-marigold aroma wafts from both the blossoms and the leaves.
    Actually, the aroma can waft over the whole garden if you plant enough Signet marigolds — which I did this year. In the past, the seeds never germinated very well for me, so I just spot planted what few seedlings I could raise here and there in the garden.
 Signet marigolds lining garden paths   This spring, in mid-April, I sowed the seeds densely in an 8 by 6 inch seed flat. The dense planting led to an excessive number of crowded seedlings. While they were still young, I gently lifted each one to transplant into its own potting-soil-filled cell to grow for a month or so before planting out in the garden.
    The few plants I poked in at the feet of vegetable beds on either side of the main path through the vegetable garden have grown into sprawling mounds that wash into the main and side paths of the vegetable garden like seawater into an undulating beach. The flowing mounds effectively soften any excessive orderliness of the garden — from the soldier-straight Brussels sprouts plants, for example.

A Cardinal in our Midst

    My grape arbor creates a horizontal roof nine feet above my terrace. Each of the four grape vines rises to that height on a single trunk. What an opportunity for a climbing vine, especially one that climbs by twining! My other floral success this year has been with such a twining plant, cardinal climber (Ipomoea x multifida, a hybrid created by mating I. coccinea and I. quamoclit).
    In the past, other species of Ipomoea climbed those trunks. Morning glory was one, but that only blooms, of course, in the morning. Moonflowers have also dressed up the trunks, but they bloom only at night.Cardinal climber
    So this year, cardinal climber was the Impomoea species for the grape trunks. It blooms all day long, clothing itself in blossoms from top to bottom. The size and color of the blossoms, an inch or so across and cardinal red, seem best for relatively close viewing when sitting on the terrace.
    No need for these flowers to soften any excessive orderliness of the arbor. The grape trunks wend their way skyward and their long, new shoots create plenty of disarray except right after they are pruned each spring.

Fruit, Grain, & Vegetable

Homegrown Persimmons, Popcorn, and Brussels Sprouts, All in Abundance

It’s raining persimmons! And every morning I go out to gather drops from beneath the trees. And every afternoon. And, depending on the wind and the temperature, sometimes early evenings also.Szukis persimmons in hand

The fruits are delicate, their soft jelly-flesh ready to burst through their thin, translucent skins. Most fruits survive the trip from branch to ground unscathed because of the close shorn, soft, thick lawn landing pad that awaits them. I pop any that burst right into my mouth or else toss them beyond the temporary, fenced-in area as a treat to my the ducks or to Sammy, my dog who has developed a taste for the fruit. (The ducks, Indian Runners, hardly fly but Sammy, if he put two and two together, could easily hop the low fence and beat me to the fruits.) Repeatedly gathering fruit through the day is needed to keep ahead of scavenging insects.

Diopsyros Szukis on lfls tree

Szukis persimmons, ready to eat even from leafless branches

American persimmons grow wild throughout much of the eastern part of our country, about as far north as the Hudson Valley. Wild trees bear either female or male flowers. Males, which never bear fruit, can each sire a few females, which are the ones that do bear fruit. Puckery flavor is the main problem with wild persimmons. They can make your mouth feel like a vacuum cleaner is at work within. All American persimmons elicit that unpleasant feeling until fully soft, colored, and ripe; some elicit the feeling, in some measure, even when ripe.

Planting a named variety can spell the difference between a fruit to spit out and a fruit to swoon over. Said variety needs to be one that, besides tasting good, ripens within the growing season, and isn’t harvested until dead ripe. (Many otherwise good varieties do not have time to ripen this far north.) Szukis and Mohler do particularly well here near the northern limit for persimmon growing, Mohler beginning its ripening at the end of August, and Szukis the end of September. Both varieties ripen fruits over a long period, for a month or more.

One more asset for Mohler, Szukis, and some other varieties is that they make males superfluous. They can set fruit parthenocarpically (without pollination) and/or by pollination from their own occasional male blossoms. Most Mohler and Szukis fruits are seedless, a sign of parthenocarpy, but occasional fruits have a seed or two, indicating that some pollination took place.

Once leaves drop from these trees, fruiting is not finished. Ripe, orange fruits will cling for weeks to bare branches like Christmas ornaments, although, with time, fruits shrivel and brown, losing their visual — but not gustatory — appeal. Not bad for a tree that needs nothing in the way of pruning or pest control, eh?

Popcorn’s Not Just for the Movies

With the fruit course out of the way, let’s move on to the grain course. I’ve tried growing wheat and rice on a (very small) garden scale, and yields were paltry and sometimes difficult to get at because of topheavy plants flopping to the ground. Flopping was probably due to too much fertility and moisture. Processing either grain was a project in itself, entailing removal of the grain from the stalks and then from their husks.Popcorn ready for harvest

The easiest grain to grow and process on a backyard scale is popcorn, which revels in my soil’s good fertility and moisture. I grow popcorn the same way as sweet corn, in “hills” (which, horticulturally speaking, are stations or clusters rather than raised mounds) with 3 to 4 plants per hill and two rows of hills in each 3 foot wide bed, with two feet from hill to hill within each row.

The only downside to growing popcorn on a small scale is the need to keep it away from sweet corn, if you grow that also. Planting sweet corn and popcorn too close to each other lets them cross-pollinate, resulting in sweet corn that is less sweet and popcorn kernels than wanly split to exhale steam rather than blow apart till they’re inside out.

Even with popcorn grown in sufficient isolation, correct moisture level (20 percent) is what makes for good popping. I wait to harvest until the ears and husks are dry on the stalks. After harvest, I peel back the husk, leaving a few layers, pull off the browned silk, then tie 3 or 4 ears together by their pulled back husks and hang the bunch from the kitchen rafters to dry.

The ears hang from the rafters all year ready for popping. When I feel like eating some popcorn, I just twist the kernels off a cob; microwavers can put the cob, intact, into their microwave ovens. I find that poppability varies through the year, probably depending on the temperature and the humidity.

If I sought maximum poppability, I could measure the moisture level by accurately weighing out a portion of kernels and drying them in a 150°F. oven overnight, then re-weighing them. But how big the kernels can puff up isn’t nearly as important to me as the fact that popcorn is an easy-to-grow, nutritious, whole grain that’s tasty and fun to eat.

The Sprouts Responded to Being Pinched

Finally, moving on to the vegetable course. A few weeks ago I wrote about sizing up the sprouts of Brussels sprouts by pinching the tips of the plants. That stops the production of the hormone auxin, which had been suppressing sprout growth further down along the stem.

Pinched Brussels sprouts plants have larger sprouts

Pinched Brussels sprouts plants have larger sprouts

The suppression is only temporary. As uppermost buds start to grow, they, in turn, start pumping down auxin. Those 3 or 4 upper buds now threaten to expand to become stems. At this point they can do what they will because lower buds — the sprouts — have all puffed up to good size.

Hormones Get Pumping

More Brussels Sprouts, Cabbages, & Pears with Hormones

It’s time to get the hormones pumping. No, not by me embarking on some testosterone-fueled, garden-related feat of strength or endurance. Not even my own hormones, but the ones in my plants, more specifically my brussels sprouts plants. And actually, quashing the action of one hormone so that other hormones can come to the fore.

Let me explain: Brussels sprouts are not only a member of the cabbage family but are the same genus and species as cabbage, as are broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, and kale. Differences in these plants lie in the way growth of the stems and leaves are expressed. Cabbage has a single stem that’s been telescoped down to very short internodes, resulting in a tight head of overlapping leaves. With kale, internodes along the stem are further apart, allowing each leaf to unfold fully on its own. They also look different from those of cabbage.

In every plant, a shoot bud develops in the upper part of the crotch where a leaf joins a stem. Most brussels sprouts buds each start to develop enough to form a small, cabbage like head. But I — and probably you also — want large brussels sprouts sprouts (and more of them, so I also want tall brussels sprouts plants on which to attach the sprouts).

Pinching makes Brussels Sprouts sprouts bigger

Pinching makes Brussels Sprouts sprouts bigger

The sprouts are retarded somewhat in their development by a hormone called auxin. Auxin is one of many plant hormones coursing about within leaves, fruits, shoots, and roots, their effect dependent on such variables as plant part, plant age, and what other hormones they are reacting with. One place of auxin synthesis is in the tips of stems, and their effect is to suppress growth of buds down along the stem, with more suppression the closer a bud is to the tip of the stem. I just looked at my brussels sprouts plants; yes, the largest sprouts are those nearest ground level. It’s still too early to harvest and too many of the upper sprouts, at present, are too small to be worth picking.

Suppressing auxin production in the tip of the stem releases their hold on the buds — that is, the sprouts — along the stem, so they can grow larger. Suppressing auxin production is simple, requiring only two fingers: Just snap off the tip of the stem. No tip, no auxin production, for a while, at least. The time to do this “operation” is the beginning of September. Done too soon, and a developing sprout might grow so bold as to grow out into, at worst, shoots or, less worse, loose heads. Plus, earlier in the season, I want to keep the stem elongating to provide real estate along which to hang more sprouts.

A Three-Headed Cabbage!

As I wrote, every plant develops buds in its leaf axils, and in every plant growth of those buds is mediated, in part, by auxin. Harvest the main head of broccoli and side shoots start to grow for eventual harvest.

Even tight heads of cabbage have those buds and they also respond to auxin’s influence. I used to plant cabbage in the spring for harvest in summer. Rather than pulling out the spent cabbage plants, as is usually done, I would leave the cut stump with a few bottom leaves for nourishment. Harvesting the cabbage dramatically removes the tip of the stem, which was buried within the head.

Cabbage plants left after harvest develop multiple heads

Cabbage left after harvest = multiple heads

Within a couple of weeks, new sprouts would develop in the crotches where leaves were or had been. In the ideal world, I’d get one to three new cabbage heads from each plant, ready for autumn harvest. A certain amount of art was needed to get it right. Depending on growing conditions and the number of new heads I allowed to develop, they might end up too small or too loose-leaved.

I’ve abandoned that chancy cabbage habit and now do a second sowing of cabbage in early June for a reliable autumn harvest of firm heads.

Pears — More, Please

I fiddled around with hormones earlier this season also, with longer term goals in mind. Auxin keeps the tip of a stem or the upper portions of a plant growing most vigorously. Vigorous growth, though, is at odds with making fruit. After all, both require a lot of a plant’s energy, so the plant has to partition the energy efficiently between growing and fruiting.

Fruiting pear branchPear trees are famous for growing vigorous shoots skyward. Yes, shoot growth is needed on which to hang fruit and for adequate leaves for photosynthesis. But enough is enough. Rather than pinch out shoot tips, which would likely just pass on the vigor to nearby lower buds, I bent ranches down and held them there with string. Changing stem orientation from vertical to at or near horizontal quells auxin production, slows growth, and promotes the formation of fruit buds along the stem. (Fruit buds form the year before flowers open.)

Fruits now dangle from some of the stems that I pulled down a year ago last spring. The response can take more than a year as energy reserves are redistributed within the stem. Response also depends on a tree’s inherent vigor, growing conditions for the season, the pear variety, the degree of stem bending, and other knowns and unknowns. It’s takes a mix of science, art, and experience, and that’s what makes gardening so interesting for me.