Sad Sprout Story

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.

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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 …..

Oh no….

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.

caterpillar on a kalette

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….!!

20 thoughts on “Sad Sprout Story”

  1. I’ve had a similar experience with sprouts on one part of my plots. I have now lots of very tiny bud sprouts which I don’t think will grow much more. Thank goodness for kale spinach & cabbages.
    Hope we both have better luck next year. You’ll have to surreptitiously pinch some of Charles’s sprouts😜x

    1. Stephanie Hafferty

      He has some early ones that we’ve been sharing 🙂 I’m interested to see how these sprouts do, but as you say, hurrah for other crops!

  2. Similar experience this year! but i forgot to net it before the caterpillars came, and then i think my netting wasn’t fine enough because i would clear every single inch of the brussels of caterpillars and somehow more would appear! I did as you did and removed the net eventually, some aphids came for the growing tips, but most of my brussels had developed to a decent size by then, some had the first two outer sprout leaves chewed through but the rest of the sprout was perfectly edible and tasty! okay for home use but i can’t imagine general public buying sprouts that looked like mine haha! just goes to show how silly “cosmetic” veg is

    1. Stephanie Hafferty

      So glad your sprout story has a happy ending! Yes, you’re right about the silliness of cosmetically perfect veg. One of the brilliant things about growing your own is you appreciate and enjoy everything, even if they have had a bit of a nibble.

  3. What a shame! My sprouts are doing so well, up here in Scotland ☺I was planning on growing even more next year because I love them so much. Just as well netting exists! So it is off to visit Charles under cover of darkness to get his sprouts before he notices😅😂

    1. Stephanie Hafferty

      Glad your sprouts are doing well, they are such a tasty addition to winter meals and the tops too, so delicious.

      I’m off to Homeacres soon, we’re running a gardening course today. Shall have to smuggle some sprouts back home with me…… 😉

  4. That is such a shame after so much hard work and care! I have found that after brassicas are badly affected by caterpillars, even if they recover, they don’t taste nice. I have a theory that the attacked plant creates a chemical substance that the butterflies and caterpillars dislike as a self-defense mechanism.

    Have you heard of using the plant Barbarea vulgaris, “Land Cress Cabbage Moth” variety, as a trap crop? These brassicas can be interspersed among the other edible crops, and are more attractive to the butterflies, but when the caterpillars hatch and start to eat the land cress, they are killed by s chemical produced by the cress. Not toxic to us though.

    1. Stephanie Hafferty

      Thank you – it is frustrating isn’t it when something that takes quite a long time to grow gets attacked!

      Yes I have, but as far as I know the cabbage white caterpillars are fine on this plant, it is the diamond backed moth and large cabbage moth that it kills. They are very pretty. Barbarea verna is the American Land Cress that I grow for salads in the winter, does a similar thing I think.

      However need to net these anyway due to other visitors to the plot – deer, birds, rabbits too.

      I haven’t found recovering brassicas to taste bad. They do look sorrowful though!

  5. What a shame for you. My sprouts didn’t quite make it that far. All my brassicas had flea beetle Armageddon in July/August. Even under fine netting! Only ones that didn’t die were the incredible calabrese I’ve had in the ground since March. I harvested the main heads about May time……and they still keep producing, now well into November. Occasionally some of the secondary heads have rivalled the size of the initial ones too. Ironman. Amazing.
    Hopefully your sprouts will recover and give you a wonderful Christmas present.

    1. Stephanie Hafferty

      Oh no! Flea beetle was bad this year for many people. Usually enviromesh works well against it, but if there’s the slightest gap in they go.
      Brilliant news about your broccoli!

  6. Thanks so much for sharing the bad as well as the good, it’s what makes your blog so relatable to all of us who also can’t spend every waking hour at the allotment protecting our crops from all the hazards. We’ve had a big deer problem this year, but there’s still enough left to eat.

    1. Stephanie Hafferty

      Thank you Jane, really appreciate this 🙂 Good luck with the deer, I hope they find another place to feed.

  7. It’s so frustrating losing veg like this, I lost my beautiful Fildekraut cabbages to caterpillars this year, first time I’d attempted to grow them too! Visions of coleslaw and sauerkraut blurred, but I did learn that the butterfly proof netting I bought ain’t!!! Oh the philosophy of gardening!

  8. I find it so surprising that butterfly caterpillars are active so late in the year. A real shame that they have decimated your crop, hopefully some of the sprout plants recover. My problem here is the perennial, slugs. They make lace out of my kales, have lost so many leaves to them that I have started using slug pellets now the hedgehogs have gone into hibernation – and a torch and scissors after dark! It seems we all have our munching adversaries to deal with. At least we don’t have pigeons or deer.

      1. If you provide some habitat for slugs, like a wet plank on the ground beside their targeted crop, they congregate beneath it and are easy to dispense in the daylight hours.

      2. Stephanie Hafferty

        That’s a useful tip if there’s a lot of slugs about. I try to keep slug habitat to a minimum where my veggies are growing, so they decided to live somewhere else.

  9. I read in a French magazine 4 Saisons du jardinage the advice of a farmer to plant 2 rows of tall vegetables (he was doing sweet corn) in front of the leeks to deter the leek moth which never flies higher than 2m.
    Perhaps something similar could apply to cabbage moth?
    He was using the corn for animal food

    1. Stephanie Hafferty

      I hadn’t heard that about leek moth, Alexandra – an experiment for next year, perhaps, but I do wonder wouldn’t the leek moths just fly around the corn, or does one plant it all around the leeks?

      I shouldn’t think it would work for cabbage moth which as far as I know would fly over the corn. I just need to make sure the mesh doesn’t blow off next year 🙂

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