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.


 Why Grow Sweet Corn?

   With all the supersweet, tender ears of corn readily available at farms, farmers’ markets, even supermarkets these days, why do I bother to grow my own sweet corn? Because it tastes better, much better. Corn can be too sweet, and too tender for many of us maizophiles.
    I grow the variety Golden Bantam, which was the standard of excellent in sweet corn a hundred years ago. Its fat, golden kernels are toothsome, giving you something to chew on (but they’re not too chewy), with a rich, corny flavor. And yes, they are also sweet, just not supersweet.
 A bed of ripe Golden Bantam corn   Corn is a relatively pest-free vegetable that warrants space in any garden. I grow corn in hills (clusters) of three plants each with 2 feet between hills in the row and two rows of hills down each 3-foot-wide bed. With each stalk yielding one to two ears, I reap 30 to 60 ears for each ten feet of bed! That’s a lot of ears, and it’s in space in which I sow early lettuce or spinach before planting the corn, and late turnips or, again, lettuce, spinach, arugula, or other cool season vegetables to follow the corn harvest.
    Of course, I plant more than just one 10 foot bed of corn and I spread the harvest season with successive sowings, 4 of them 2 weeks apart.
    There is one limitation to backyard corn: raccoons. Given the opportunity, they will harvest every ripe ear. Trapping is one way to keep them at bay. My dogs, Sammy and Scooter, spend day and night frolicking outdoors — and convincing raccoons to search for greener pastures.

GMO and Crap Shooting

    Golden Bantam corn, because it originated in 1906, is, of course non-GMO, that is, a “non genetically modified organism.” (As of now, almost all commercial sweet corn is still non-GMO; just about all field corn, which makes its way into animals, corn syrup, and more packaged products than you can imagine, is GMO.) This is my lead-in to clearing up some basic misconceptions about what GMO means.
    When the pollen from any plant lands on the female part of a flower of another plant, cross-pollination occurs. The resulting seeds and the plant growing from those seeds carry genes contributed from each of the two parent plants. As a result, the offspring are similar to, but not genetically identical, to the parents. The offspring is a natural hybrid.
    Enter Homo sapiens . . . Since the dawn of civilization, we humans have sought certain traits in our plants. To get plants with such traits, we chose plant parents having qualities to our liking and deliberately mated them in the hopes that their offspring would pick up only the parents’ good traits. The more offspring that are grown, the better the chance of finding a hybrid — one produced with human assistance, in this case, possessing desirable traits.
    Besides the crapshoot of traditional breeding, success is further limited by our only being able to choose from among plant parents that are related closely enough to breed. For instance you could not mate a tomato plant, which is not frost tolerant, with, say, a flounder, a fish very tolerant of freezing temperatures, in an effort to make a frost tolerant tomato. Tomatoes and fish are not even distant kin and could never breed with each other under natural conditions.
    About 30 years ago, scientists developed methods for circumventing the capriciousness of natural or human-assisted breeding. Laboratory methods were developed for teasing a desirable gene out of a cell of one organism, then injecting the gene into cell of another organism to create new organism — a GMO. And I do mean a “new organism,” because it contains genetic material that need not have come from a related organism.
    That “fish tomato” was, in fact, created by incorporated the so-called antifreeze gene from winter flounder into a tomato. It turns out that gene expression is not as straightforward or as predictable as once imagined. The fish tomato was a commercial flop in its frost tolerance and other agronomic characteristics; perhaps it would have been a good swimmer.
    Since that fish tomato came and went, other GMOs have been developed. Many have been commercial successes.
    Just to be clear: While it is true, as is often stated in support of GMOs, that hybridization or cross-breeding has been going on in nature for eons, that cross-breeding has always been between closely related species. Humans intervened, but nature could also have produced those traditional hybrids.
    All the above involves, in some sense, genetic modification. You are a genetic modification of your parents. But the term “genetically modified organism,” or GMO, genetically engineered, or transgenic organism, signifies an organism that has picked up genes via manipulation in a laboratory, often genes that never could have showed up naturally in the organism.

Some Summer in Winter

    I awaited my first taste of this season’s Golden Bantam with more anticipation than my first taste of tomato. Finally, we’re awash in sweet corn, more than we can eat.Dried sweet corn, for storage all winter.
    But six weeks of sweet corn will not satisfy, so we’re packing away some for winter. Steaming or boiling the shucked cobs arrests enzymes that change kernel’s sugars to starches. With sweetness retained, we slice kernels from cobs, then either freeze them or dry them. Either way, they are a flavorful addition to soups, stews, and breads on dark, cold, winter days. But nothing like biting into a freshly steamed cob in the heat of summer sun.

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