THE reason for the noble sprout being reviled through the generations was presented to me on a Christmas plate the other day.
That mushy yellow thing leaking water and smelling slightly of sulphur took me back to the bad old days when they were cooked to death, killing any desire to eat them.
That is such a shame and a waste of the best endeavours of farmers and gardeners, who do their level best when faced with all manner of pests, not least the dreaded club root.
But help is at hand with club root with a new generation of brassica that is at least resistant to this pernicious pest.
Club root is an infection of the roots of brassicas and related plants.
The soil-dwelling micro-organism, related to the slime moulds, causes massive swelling, distortion and severely retarded growth — hence the descriptive name.
Most gardeners know it affects Brussels sprouts, cabbages, cauliflowers, turnips, swedes and radishes but it is less known that ornamental relatives such as cheiranthus (wallflowers), matthiola (stocks) and aubrieta are affected too.
Club root can infect whenever the soil is moist and warm, so most new infections occur from mid-summer until late autumn and cause seriously stunted growth, purplish foliage and wilting in hot weather.
Care should be taken to buy brassica plants from a guaranteed club root-free source and if the disease is known to be present on your patch, try to give plants a head start by growing them on in healthy soil to a larger size before planting out.
Club root is reduced (but not eliminated) by raising the soil pH by liming and improving drainage as well.
Some cultivars show some levels of resistance: Brussels sprouts Chronos and Crispus F1, calabrese Trixie, cauliflower Clapton, cabbages Kilaxy and Kilaton, kale tall green curled and swede Marian.
Thompson & Morgan currently has a discounted club root-resistant triple selection available and it has taken 18 years of selective breeding to get this far. The selection is:
Cabbage Kilaton — quality, 2kg, autumn heads with a solid, dense structure.
Cauliflower Clapton — produces uniform-quality, large, solid, deep white heads.
Brussels sprout Crispus F1 — plant this latest clubroot-resistant, hybrid variety in spring for an autumn harvest.
It is worth noting Brussels sprouts also contain compounds that have been investigated for potential health benefits.
Chief among these is sulforaphane. Research has focused on sulforaphane’s potential as a protector against neurodegenerative diseases. While more research is still required, neuroprotective effects have been observed both in lab-cultured cells and within animals.
I first saw broccoli’s handsome Italian cousin, the stunning romanesco, a good few years ago now in its native country and was blown away both by its appearance and taste.
With its whirling spirals, you would be forgiven for thinking this vivid green marvel is some kind of genetically engineered vegetable.
In fact, romanesco has been around since the 16th century and predates broccoli and cauliflower.
Sometimes referred to as caulibroc or broccoflower, the flavour of cooked romanesco sits somewhere between cauliflower and broccoli but with an added tasty 'nuttiness’.
Needless to say, it’s full of good stuff: super-rich in antioxidants, vitamin C and fibre.
If you can avoid club root, pigeons and cabbage white caterpillars, broccoli, cauliflower, romanesco, Brussels or cabbage are easy to grow.
Here are Thompson & Morgan’s top tips:
Grow your brassicas in soil that has been really well prepared.
Keep well watered, especially during dry spells.
Brassicas enjoy a fortnightly liquid feed, particularly a seaweed feed, if possible. The stronger the plant the more resistant it is to disease.
If feeding or watering is erratic, this may mean head development is not as good.
Pick cauliflower and romanesco heads when young — you can keep a watchful eye on how they are developing by peeling back the protective leaves.
Many gardeners use protective garden fleece, especially when growing small cauliflower and romanesco.
Companion planting: Try growing brassicas with nasturtiums, to draw cabbage white butterflies away from your crop, and mint, to help deter flea beetles.
Romanesco seeds are available at £2.29 for a packet of 125 seeds. To see Thompson & Morgan’s full brassica range, go to www.thompson-morgan.
com/brassicas or go to your local garden centre.