Jack Frost’s nibbling at your sprouts

Engage any seasoned gardener in conversation and before too long the advice will start to flow in the form of well-known sayings – ‘never cast a clout ’til May is out’ and ‘one year of seeds equals seven years of weed’ for example.

I’m prepared to take some of this on board because there is often a grain of truth in such offerings. Gardening lore would have it that you don’t start harvesting Brussels sprouts until the hard frosts of winter arrive, the suggestion being that this enhances the favour. But we picked our first serving and several since, from the F1 hybrid Trafalgar well over a month ago before any hint of cold weather, and they were and remain delicious.

Frost may well take the taste level a notch higher but some varieties are adversely affected by it, turning to mush when they thaw. What a waste if we waited for JF to arrive before sampling.

Trafalgar is a fairly vigorous grower that needs cane supports but produces a mass of large sprouts, nine plants being more than enough to keep an average household going throughout winter, pigeons permitting. They have been sitting atop the plants feasting on the tender cabbage-like tips as usual, and have forced me to bring netting into play.

Leaves of Brussels sprouts, in keeping with several members of the brassica family, contain mustard oils (glycocinolates), which are responsible for the bitter taste that turns-off children and some adults when it comes to eating their greens. These substances are part of the plant’s natural defence against insect pests, so the challenge for hybridists was; develop a plant with less bitter sprouts without making it more vulnerable to nibblers.

A degree of success came in the 1990s when a sweeter tasting series of sprouts was launched with varietal names relating to Ancient Greek heroes such as Icarus. I grew some on trial and found them less bitter but taste is a personal thing whichever vegetable is involved. The acid test for any newly-introduced edible or ornamental plant is how long it will last in the seed catalogues. This variety is now difficult to find listed in the main seed catalogues so I assume the gardening public did not take to it.

‘Don’t plant your brassicas on the same spot every year’ is advice that certainly rings true, as anyone who has followed the practice and ended up with club root will confirm.

Once present, the disease persists for several years rendering the planting of cabbage, cauliflower, sprouts and other family members on that plot most unwise.

Cultivars allegedly immune to the disease have been introduced, eg cabbage Kilaxy but my experience and that of acquaintances who’ve grown it, is that it’s far from convincing. An annual crop rotation plan is the best way to avoid such disasters.