Sprouts – love them or hate them, they are an integral part of Christmas. For what would the great festive family meal be without the humble sprout (some, particularly children, may well say that it would be a much more enjoyable dinner, but we have to face facts – the sprout is linked inextricably with the December 25 dinner table).
Nowadays, however, few people grow their own. When I was young, just about everyone in the village where I lived grew their own veg – and sprouts were high on the list of must-haves. There were no fridges back then, so any food which could stand its ground during winter was worth its weight in gold.
And it's not as though sprouts are all that difficult to grow; as long as the space is available, even the most cack-handed of gardeners should be able to grow them – and, by heck, they taste a lot better than many a shop-bought version. Excuse the name-dropping, but I once asked the late (and great) gardener, Geoffrey Smith, what was his favourite vegetable. His eyes took on a far-away look and he waited several seconds before delivering his verdict – sprouts. And, if possible, taken straight from the plant and eaten raw. "There's no taste quite like it," he said.
On the space on the calendar allocated for April 1, just write the word 'sprouts'. It's possible to buy plants – small, individual specimens which you can grow on to become mature specimens; but while that could well suit someone who has neither the time nor the inclination to sow the seed, germinate it, pot on the seedlings before finally planting them in their positions in the garden, there's still nothing quite like starting from scratch.
Sow the seed in early April; you should get a monumental number of seedlings from just one packet, so unless you have plenty of space and a real love for the taste of sprouts, go easy.
Sprouts, like most members of the brassica family, like a decent soil – not too acidic, reasonably well-drained and, particularly with sprouts, a site protected from strong winds which could, when the plants have reached a decent size, batter them into submission.
Transplant the seedlings when they are still quite small (about 4in high) and have two or three proper leaves. They might look small, but they will grow big, so space them all least 18in apart in rows. While they are still growing, you can make use of the space between each plant by planting what's called a catch crop – something quick-growing and harvested, like spring onions.
Some gardeners stake their sprouts to give them more stability; others just rely on the inherent strength in the plant's stem to keep them upright. Treading down the soil will also help them anchor themselves for when the going gets tough. Frost actually enhances the flavour of sprouts, so don't worry about the weather in winter; and, with luck and depending on the number of plants you grow and your appetite, you could still be picking fresh veg well into the new year (in this case, 2011). And talking of sprouts – researchers from Warwick University's School of Life Sciences have come up with the answer as to why sprouts have been increasingly affected by a spot.
The turnip mosaic virus is responsible for the black spots seen on many a poor sprout and which makes them unwanted by the big supermarkets who seem to think that we all want perfect, same-sized, unblemished vegetables.
That apart, the scientists have discovered the gene which controls resistance to the virus and are going all out to breed resistant varieties. Good for them.
Me? I'm with Geoffrey Smith. Take a sprout from your home-grown plant; if there are a few blemishes on the outer leaves, pull them off – then eat the sprout, raw. It's a taste you will never forget and is certainly not one which should be restricted to Christmas Day.
YP MAG 24/12/10