The Tragedy of the Sprouts

A field of "sprouts" on the North Fork just across the water from Flanders Bay Farm.

A field of "sprouts" on the North Fork just across the water from Flanders Bay Farm.

Long Island farmers still produce several acres of Brussels Sprouts, we even have an old open-pollinated variety named after Long Island from the days that this brussels sprout cultivar was extensively grown here and when local farmers even produced seed crops of this variety for themselves and the local seed retailers.  In the 1950's it was the sprout we grew in our Deer Park garden.  It's been ages since brussels sprout seed has been produced on Long Island.  That's probably the reason that the "Long Island" variety of brussels sprouts is almost never grown here anymore.   It is still in commerce from seed grown on the West Coast.  There, it is an important processing variety.   I wonder if selection for the west coast commercial farmer has significantly changed it so that it's performance here is just not as good as it once was.   If there is time, we'll do a brussels sprouts trial next year.  There is quite a bit of diversity in brussels sprouts.  The plants can be tall or short, green or purple, the sprouts can be widely spaced on the stem or internodes can be closely spaced.  It would be nice to re-adapt Long Island brussels sprouts.

Generally, the four week old transplants go into the field in June and are harvested after the first frost. Most are marketed in November and December and cut fresh from the fields even if covered by a light snow!  Like kale and collards, the cold makes the sprouts more tender and sweet. They really aren't "just cabbages", each member of the cabbage family has a unique and distinctive flavor.

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Brussels Sprouts are marginally hardy until spring if left in the field.  With some protection they will survive in zone 7 and begin to send flower shoots from the loosened and battered axial buds (sprouts) along the stalk.  A single plant can produce a multitude of branching flower stalks and hundreds of yellow flowers that if successfully pollinated will develop into seed pods.  The flowering can happen an early as late April and the pods will mature in early to mid summer.  Pulling sprout plants and cabbage plants from the field in order to root cellar the plants before a hard frost is ideal if you have an area that will be maintained above freezing and with sufficient moisture to prevent the roots from drying.  One technique to winter over and produce seed crops of cabbage and brussels sprouts is to pot up the plants in gallon containers and hold them over in a cold polyhouse.   The pods (siliques) will turn brown when they mature and when it appears that the pods are ripe enough to begin to shatter and lose seeds; cut the stalk and store upside down in a loose brown paper bad where they will dry.  Allow the pods tp become brittle over several days or weeks and then thrash and clean the seed for storage.  You will be surprised that the seed yield of one plant can be several ounces!  Our breeding goal is to turn Long Island Brussels Sprouts back into the surefire sprout maker it once was and maintain the sprout size, excellent flavor, early maturity and dwarf plant size. 

It pains me to see a great field of Long Island Sprouts or for that matter; cabbage, kale, collards or many of the biennial brassicasthat survived the winter being turned over in the spring.  Iwant to run into the field and select the plants that really are exceptional (there are always a few) to allow them to go to seed.  We're talking acres of a variety to select from as opposed to the dozens of plants that I have to select from in my gardens...and that matters.  Selecting from a larger population is always more effective.  If farmers only realized they could be harvesting superior seed for the next planting.  What a missed opportunity.  Hey Long Island farmers...just give me a call before you plow and I will come with my shovel and show you how easy it is!

Cabbages

Kale, Collards, Savoy, Brussels Sprouts;  they are just cabbages I am told.  All Brassica oleracea.  Cauliflower, Kohlrabi, Gai lan and Broccoli are also the same species. Since they are all the same species, they are capable of cross pollination.  Maintaining the purity of a variety of any of these vegetable kinds requires that there are no other members of B. oleracea in bloom at the same time in the same garden where insect pollinators can transfer pollen among different plants.  However, because of self incompatibility, it is useful to have many plants of the cultivar that you wish to save pure seed of.  Many seed-savers see the need to preserve a large enough gene pool for the variety, at least a dozen plants. 

The star of our 2005 cabbage trials, this popular European Cabbage known as "January King" was perhaps the most beautiful specimen in our patch. It started to show color in late fall and by Thanksgiving the purple highlights were very well developed. It's traditionally a "spring" cabbage in Europe maturing in 165 days or so in the regions where winters are mild. We have to fine tune our planting/harvest schedule to maximize head size next year- but it certainly has potential in our climate!

January King

January King

The flavor of January King was terrific.  Sweet and crisp.   It would be nice to develop an earlier version of January King.  Plant in mid summer for an after-frost harvest.  Cold is often the catalyst that brings on the best flavors like kale, collards, cabbage and brussels sprouts.  Tones down the harsher mustard flavors and adds some sweetness.  Although we're not reluctant to use summer cabbages and young kales and collards from the garden, we can't wait for frosty weather to finish off the crucifers for harvest.  Below freezing weather doesn't damage this group unless temperatures drop down into the teens and low twenty's.  For a seed crop, moving the rooted mature plants into a root cellar for humid, cold storage protected from the kind of intense winter freezing/thawing cyclesthat will kill these plants is essential.  Some cultivars will over-winter in the field if given some protective mulching.  January King has wintered over with mulch here on Long Island.

After January King, other cabbages are just cabbages.  This year we trialed about a dozen varieties of cabbage from Europe recommended by organic growers there- some did quite well in our gardens.   Look for specific varieties that we will release as local seed crops are produced.

To produce seeds one must overwinter the first year's crop. Cabbages, brussels sprouts, kales and collards are biennial.  Some varieties of cabbage and brussels sprouts don't make it through our winters so that a heavy leaf mulch or a protective plastic cold-frame like cover by mid December is necessary. Many brassica including cabbage and brussels sprouts send up a mass of flower stalks from the main stem. 

Cabbages are not known from the wild, they are a product of human selection.  Wild cabbages are collard like.  In selecting the traits we find important such as a rock-hard head for kraut and slaw and most of all to provide an easy kind of food storage through the winter (head cabbages store well), we have made the cabbage dependent on us in order to survive.  Cabbage breeders have turned this leafy vegetable into a gigantic terminal bud, the growing tip confined beneath overlapping bud scale leaves.   Sometimes cabbage heads will soften on their own after winter in the field so that the stem can emerge from the top of the cabbage, sometimes the entire plant will rot though.  It may be necessary to split the cabbage head so that the terminal bud at the heart of the head can emerge.  And then, sometimes dormant buds along the short stem beneath the head sprout in spring.  It takes a while for the flower stalks to emerge and flower (in late April) and another month or two to produce seed pods that turn brown with ripe seed. Use care to harvest the seed before the pods (siliques) shatter.