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!