Wednesday 13 November 2019

Making room for the tough task of sprout growing

After many years of failure I think this year will finally be mine – as long as I can keep the slugs away

A good, healthy plant should yield 2kg of sprouts – that's the goal
A good, healthy plant should yield 2kg of sprouts – that's the goal
Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly

This time of the year is always about juggling space in the veg patch as things start to get overcrowded. I came face to face with this issue again this week, when I went to plant out my Brussels sprouts plants (variety Birgitte) and found that there was literally nowhere to put them in the brassica bed. The bed is full of cabbage, turnip, kohlrabi, kale and a couple of courgette plants which I planted there a few weeks back simply because I had nowhere else to put them. (Courgette plants don't really belong in a brassica rotation of course, so don't tell anyone.)

The Brussels sprouts plants certainly needed moving on as they were starting to show signs of being a little stressed out in the module trays. Growing vegetables seedlings in module trays is always about finding a balance between leaving them long enough to get well established, and not leaving them so long that they become 'pot bound'.

In a perfect world, one would always find that balance – in reality, life can crowd in and complicate things, and it's easy to keep putting things off ('I'll definitely plant them out this weekend', is generally how things start to go pear-shaped for me). If the roots start to pop through the bottom of the module tray, it's more than time to move them on.

So, I had a problem on my hands. The plants needed planting out, but there was, literally, nowhere to put them. Though I am not sure it's the done thing, I decided to pot them up in to individual larger pots to hold them for another few weeks – this should be enough time for some of the cabbages to be gone from the brassica bed to free up some space.

Brussels sprouts become big, tall plants and they need spacing about 60cm apart. Four to five plants should be more than enough to give you a decent crop, but they will occupy quite a deal of space in the veg patch.

Of course, they also monopolise that space for up to half a year or more.

I've never had much luck with Brussels sprouts to be honest – more often than not the plants get munched at seedling stage by slugs, or later by caterpillars. I heard a comment recently which was attributed to Michael Michaud – he said he doesn't grow any vegetable that takes longer than a small child to grow. I can sort of empathise with that – I find I don't have much time for 'long-game' veg like Brussels sprouts, asparagus etc. I'm more of an instant gratification kind of guy, quite honestly. Four to five months is about the limits of my patience.

Even in years where I do get the sprouts plants to survive the summer, I tend to neglect them over the autumn and winter, ignoring the rather basic maintenance jobs that will ensure a decent crop – an occasional feed, earthing up the stems to prevent them blowing over, removing yellowing/dying leaves etc. A good, healthy plant should yield 2kg of sprouts – that's the goal. The reality, as I've said, has been pretty different to date.

While we're on the general theme of 'brassica update', let me say this much: I'm very pleased with my kale plants so far this year. Let's be honest – kale is not everyone's idea of a good time. But, it's incredibly good for you, and a kale salad recipe by Dorcas Barry from this year's GIY magazine ('Grow') has opened my eyes to its potential (even when raw).

Over the years I've weaned myself successfully on to eating homegrown beetroot and spinach, two vegetables that I didn't like traditionally. I reckon I'm all the healthier for it. So kale is next on my list.

Since it's a vegetable that is always considered something of a veg-patch stalwart (doggedly churning out leaves in even the harshest of conditions), I feel embarrassed (but also a little liberated) to admit this: My name is Michael Kelly and I have never grown kale successfully.

Once established, kale plants are relatively problem-free, but they are incredibly vulnerable to slug damage at seedling stage. For several years running, I've lovingly raised module trays of kale plants only to have the whole lot munched within weeks of being planted out. So, this year I was taking no chances.

First of all I sprayed the bed they were going to be planted in with a biological control – the microscopic nematode nemaslug that attack slugs and give you six weeks' slug-free growing. I also put a generous sprinkling of organic slug pellets out. If you're against the idea of killing slugs, you will no doubt find both of those measures rather disagreeable, but all I can say is that sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures.

Secondly, I also allowed the kale plants to get a lot bigger and hardier before planting them out. Healthy plants are more able to withstand the loss of a couple of leaves to slugs. These measures seem to have paid off and I now have the makings of a decent kale crop. I have three different varieties on the go: the chef's favourite Nero di Toscana, the beautiful Redbor and the purple-green leaved Red Russian. I can feel the healthiness oozing from me already.

Michael Kelly is author of 'Trading Paces and Tales from the Home Farm', and founder of GIY.

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