In search of sweeter Brussels sprouts. Key is timing harvest to the first frost

More than a dozen years have passed since I turned in for lunch at an English wayside pub on a bleak winter day. I've long since forgotten the name of the place and cannot even recall the region I was driving through. But for several reasons, the meal that I had remains pleasantly etched in my memory.

First, there was the atmosphere - warm and cozy - compared with the raw, damp January weather outside. The service was cheerful, if not prompt, and the price dirt cheap even by the standards of the day.

It helped that I was hungry and the English do have a way with ``bangers and mash'' (sausage and mashed potatoes).

Then there were the Brussels sprouts!

Hard as it might be for some to comprehend, they made that meal. English sprouts, it seems, always taste infinitely sweeter than those served up on this side of the Atlantic. Why should that be?

A more appropriate climate helps, but the difference doesn't have to be so marked, if it need exist at all, says Rob Johnston, whose annual searches for new and tastier vegetables has made him a name to be reckoned with in the seed industry.

Mr. Johnston, who founded Johnny's Selected Seeds in Albion, Maine, recalls a day just before Christmas when, bundled up against the cold, he went out to his fields, brushed back the snow, and snapped off a score or so of the frozen sprouts. The British never ate a sweeter meal than the Johnston family did that night.

The key to sweet-tasting sprouts in the United States, according to the 1 in 10 American gardeners who grow them regularly, is timing. If they can mature just as the first frosty nights arrive, then there shouldn't be a strong or bitter sprout among them.

Even early English sprouts aren't as sweet as the later harvest. Some varieties (generally those that take longer to mature) also taste sweeter than others.

When they are at their best, there's no better way to serve them than steamed and lightly buttered. Raw with a dip is another good option.

Or you might find another Johnston-household method appealing: Simmer raw sprouts in tomato sauce until cooked to your liking. Serve as a sauce over something else or as a side dish.

So how do we get good Brussels sprouts? Here are the basics:

1.Provide good, humus-rich soil. Sprouts, like other members of the cabbage family, need a steady supply of nutrients from soil that never dries out. Dig in compost or old manure to add moisture-holding substance to the soil.

2.Count back 90 to 100 days from your first average fall or winter frost to calculate when to set out started seedlings. Start seeds in pots four weeks before that.

3.Don't overcrowd the seedlings. The space in between plants should be 18 to 24 inches apart.

4.Side-dress once a month with a balanced garden fertilizer or with additional applications of compost. A liquid fertilizer or manure tea application every other week is another option.

5.Mulch to conserve soil moisture, and to cut down on weed growth. Water regularly if your soil drains well.

6.Brussels sprouts begin forming from the bottom up, where the base of each leaf joins the stalk. When each sprout is about one-half inch in diameter, break off the leaf below it to give it more room to form.

7.If sprouts appear slow to develop in regions with a short growing season, break off the growing tip about five weeks before frost to force the plant to direct all its energy into maturing those sprouts that have already formed. This is not necessary in regions with a long growing season, as it will reduce the total harvest and may force some sprouts to mature too soon.

8.Harvest sprouts by snapping off the sprouts as they mature from the bottom up. Prolong the harvest in cold regions of the country by mounding straw or leaves over the mature plants and covering with a sheet of plastic. Simply pull back the plastic to harvest the plants.

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