Brussels Sprouts are one of my most favourite vegetables. It is a happy day when the first sprouts are ready to pick, I even like to eat them for breakfast! Every year I grow several varieties to extend the sprout harvesting season – but sadly this year, it hasn’t gone according to plan.
I have two beds with Brussels sprouts, Flower Sprouts (aka Kalettes) and other winter brassicas in, one at the allotment and a later sowing and planting in my back garden. I am happy to report that the at-home brassicas are doing fine.
And for a long time, so were the allotment sprouts. On September 5th I took this photo of the bed.
Lush, vibrant green leaves – beautiful healthy plants. I grow my brassicas under cloches covered with butterfly netting. This not only protects them from cabbage white butterflies and moths, but also from pigeons, deer and other wild things that visit the allotments. The netting has small holes so birds, hedgehogs and other visitors are unlikely to become tangled up in it. I keep the netting firmly attached with large stones or tent pegs.
Biodiversity is important and so I also plant to attract a wide range of predators and beneficial insects, but on a small scale like an allotment or home garden, extra help from netting can mean the difference between having some harvests or losing most of them.
I’ve been growing brassicas for years, here are some from last year. I know what to do to raise healthy abundant crops – so I am sharing this story with you to show that disasters can happen to everyone.
That day, I pulled the netting back to remove any old leaves that had fallen to the ground, reducing habitat for slugs and suchlike. Then the butterfly netting was pulled back over the cloche and all, I thought, was well.
Over the next few weeks I visited the allotment little, due to travel and work commitments. A week or so later I saw that wild weather had blown the netting off, so I checked the plants and replaced it. Somehow I’d been distracted when replacing the netting and hadn’t put all of the stones back – I don’t know why, perhaps there was a phone call, or someone stopped for a chat. I checked the plants, removed the odd caterpillar and replaced the netting properly.
Two weeks passed, when I was mostly away giving talks and workshops. On the next allotment visit, this sight greeted me under the netting …..
There were caterpillars everywhere, mostly the green ones (cabbage moth caterpillars), stripping these poor Brussels to stalks. I couldn’t do much for a few days, so removed the netting to let any caterpillar eating birds and other predators in – after all, there wasn’t much left to entice a pigeon!
At the next opportunity I spent well over an hour removing caterpillars. Every time it looked as though I had them all, some more would appear.
Shaking the plants made more caterpillars fall to the floor. It was tempting to cut my losses and put the plants in the compost bin, but I thought I would give them a chance and see what happens. Look how well those darned caterpillars hide! Almost impossible to see on green stalks.
So over that afternoon I spent time with the sprouts, then did other allotment jobs, returning to find yet more caterpillars – removing those – and so on until I couldn’t find a single caterpillar!
Happily the rest of the plot was doing well, including other brassicas which had remained securely underneath their netting.
I try to leave some brassicas in flower year round in my garden and allotment. The flowers help to attract beneficial predators. These brassicas were covered with caterpillars too, but not as badly as those poor sprouts, which shows I think that many were being taken by the predators for their lunches. The brassicas were also well munched by birds.
Biodiversity is so important, a heathy balance of prey and predators benefits all. These cabbages had re-grown from the stalks of cabbages I had harvested – perfectly edible but I wouldn’t get a chance with these hungry caterpillars feasting!
Adjacent to the brassica beds were two large areas of nasturtiums. It is often claimed that nasturtiums can be grown as sacrificial crops, enticing the butterflies to lay their eggs on these and not on your brassicas. Yet my nasturtiums had barely a nibble and just a few caterpillars in residence. I grow them for a crop – they are so delicious – and have never found them to deter caterpillars from my brassicas.
I’ve been away for a few days on a writing retreat working on my next book, returning on Sunday. As soon as the rain stopped, I rushed up to the allotment to see how my sprouts were doing.
They are still mostly just stalks, but their tops are filling out a bit and look, sprouts are forming! They are far from perfect and look as though they may well bolt early, but I shall have something to eat. Bolting sprout shoots are so tasty.
Over the past few days nighttime temperatures have dropped to well below freezing. In the polytunnel all tender plants have been killed off: the sweet potato vines, a few chilli peppers, the last aubergine. At the allotment, the nasturtiums are all dead, lying in a soggy heap. Yet who did I find munching on the flowering brassicas in the sunshine – caterpillars! They have found somewhere cosy to spend the cold nights, coming out to feast and sunbathe on their cabbages.
I wonder if the parent butterflies sensed that brassicas are a longer term host for their late laid eggs, providing secure, warm accommodation and food right into November.
Looking on the bright side, I have been able to make interesting observations about the plants, insects and other life that share my allotment with me. I’ve got some great photos of depressed looking brassicas and cheerful caterpillars.
And I have learned to always, always check my netting is secure before I go home….!!