Lesson In Brussels Sprouts

Brussels SproutsYour healthy, vegetable loving Planet Natural Blogger loves Brussels sprouts. Those firm little heads with a mild cabbage flavor are wonderful with just a touch of butter or olive oil, smothered in a cheese sauce, or baked into a casserole. Our experience growing them provides an object lesson in how we learn the craft of organic gardening, one that involves success followed by a succession of problems that are solved one-by-one, often with same or similar solutions, followed by a return to success. Happy ending!

Our first attempt at planting and growing Brussels sprouts in the cool, damp Pacific Northwest climate was a thing of wonder. The plants we started indoors in January and set out in March, grew slowly until the sunny days of June — or was it July that year? — arrived. Then they took off, setting bountiful rows of sprouts along their stems. We’d read that sprouts like acidic, lower pH soils and will do well all the way down to 5.5. And we knew our soil, once part of a great fir and cedar forest was slightly acidic. All that was left was to gather recipes that would utilize our abundant harvest.

I never consider a success like this to be beginners luck until some failures indicate that that’s exactly what our early success was. And I often attribute problems to bad luck, usually associated with weather. The next year we noticed some yellowing of the sprout leaves around the edges and then black spots, something we attributed to our abundant moisture. It was an easy enough matter to remove the infected outer leaves. The following year both those problems returned as well as jagged little trails that burrowed towards the inside of the sprouts. Some of our sprouts were small and stunted. All this came even though we’d dutifully moved our Brussels sprouts patch to the opposite end of the garden.

Part of our growing problems were assuming that we knew what the problem was when we didn’t. A little research turned up effective solutions, solutions based on knowledge rather than assumption. Those yellowing leaves? Probably a sign of potassium deficiency. Those black spots? A viral disease (cold damage can also cause this but we’d had no heavy frosts in our sea-moderated climate). The ragged, chewed-out rails in the leaves? Cabbage loopers!

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The next season we were armed with information and thus prepared — in advance — for what might happen. We sprinkled wood ashes (our home was wood-heated with fuel cut from our next-door neighbor’s tree farm so we had plenty of good, clean ash) ahead of planting and after, so that the plants would have plenty of potassium. That took care of the yellow, or “bronzing” leaves as our guide called it. We also gave our plants mists of nourishing foliar spray to increase not only the potassium but all minerals that Brussels sprouts need. Those sprays increased our plants resistance and encouraged vigorous growth. We sprayed our plants with a copper fungicide early in July well before black spots appeared. Only a few of our plants showed back spots that year, despite all the rain. We figured it was the rain that had washed away the fungicide on the plants that showed the fungus. We made note in our journal to spray on clear, days (duh!).

Cabbage loopers? We scooted down the rows of sprouts and sought them out. The little buggers are easy to spot especially when they’re moving. It wasn’t a perfect solution and we still had some damaged sprouts. But we hadn’t used harmful chemical pesticides. And at the end of the season we made sure to bury the plants deeply in the bottom of our long-term compost heap so that any eggs left behind wouldn’t emerge the next season. We made sure that we treated all our cabbage crops the same way as the same pests go from one to another. Sure, we had to tolerate a little damage each harvest. But we hadn’t used chemicals and that was worth it. (Since those long-gone days, we’ve discovered Dipel Dust, a biological pest-stopper that uses a bacterial control to drop the little so-and-sos.) Of course, there are other pests and problems associated with Brussells sprouts. Diagnosing the problems and seeking out proper and effective solutions is the way to go about solving them… as we learned.

The larger lesson here is that a little knowledge goes a long way. Using foliar sprays and keeping our plants well-nourished helped to lessen — or solve! — most of our problems. But we’d never turned our failures into success if we’d depended on assumptions and beginner’s luck.

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