Driving through a winter landscape I sometimes try to spot gardens in people’s yards and look for signs of life. This year, with such mild weather, there’s been plenty of it — carrots, beets, the hardier greens — and it was a banner year for Brussels sprouts. This heroic vegetable comes into its own when lettuce has long since gone from shabby and ratty to mushy and dead.
If I were driving in, say, northern Italy right now, I’d spot yards and fields with healthy stands of leeks and cardoons. Growing these is not part of the average American gardener’s skill set. Leek plants are generally mounded with soil to give them the long white shanks that cooks love, and cardoons are wrapped in material to keep out light and produce delicious, creamy stems. I tried that with corrugated cardboard once and had some success, but it was an effort.
Brussels sprouts, on the other hand, are part of the American repertoire, and ours were spectacular this year, especially after being sweetened by the cold. Conveniently, they ripen progressively: After you’ve snapped off the fat sprouts at the bottom of the stem, the smaller ones above will continue to grow. As long as the weather holds, this can go on for many weeks. We would still be picking ours if they had not all been harvested and eaten, a joint project between us and the deer.
Whoever left the deer gate open cost us a few more delectable meals of these elegant little mini-cabbages, but his sentence was light compared with that of a friend who got no Brussels sprouts this year at all. That’s because he didn’t sow them until mid-August, and put his transplants out in mid-September. They should have been in the garden by mid-July. Timing is critical for this crop, so that it can bear before the most severe weather.
Fertility is important, too. All the brassicas, such as cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower, need fertile soil with plenty of nitrogen. One thing my poor friend could do now, by way of atonement, is to dig some autumn leaves into the bed where he plans to grow Brussels sprouts (and their brassica cousins) next year. The leaves don’t need to be rototilled, just distributed over the ground and chopped in with a spade.
The Brussels sprout plants I see as I zip by roadside gardens are not glamorous winter specimens like white-barked birches or red-berried hollies. They have tall, thick, gawky stems, from which long, somber-green leaves droop down. But note the clever way their form follows function. The thick stem has stored the nutrients that make those wonderful, fat little globes appear. And the leaves hang down like that in order to shelter the sprouts from the cold while they grow. You will often see a row of the plants, leaning to the side under the weight of an early snow. But whoever planted them can bank on sweet buttered sprouts for supper.
Damrosch's new book, "The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook," will be published in March.