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Produced by publishers of The Popular Village Monthly

Looking at the word Brussels there are 3 letter ‘s’s so here is a meaning for each. Remember that these comments relate to farm work which was routine some 56 years ago.

S for seed. You can’t get a brussels sprout plant without a seed, now that is a bit of a chicken and egg question – well into the realms of creation. Back in 1963 in Bedfordshire the next years seed was saved by the farmer from the previous years plants. Not just any old plant though. He would walk through the brussels fields looking for the strongest plants showing good development, He then marked the plant with a coloured flag – that meant they were dug up and transplanted to a ‘nursery area’. They would not be picked over at all.The plants overwintered and the following spring the brussels burst into the flowering phase of the plant allowing flower pollination and fertilisation to follow with long pods of seed developing. Once the seed pods had grown the plants were then covered with a form of waxed paper large bag. Thus, if the pods split the seed was held inside the bag.

These plants were lifted whole complete with the bag from the soil and transferred into the large greenhouse at the yard and allowed to dry out fully. Then the ancient art of threshing was performed – a tarpaulin was laid on the floor and 8 of us sitting on boxes took a plant each and beat it with a stick thus shattering the dry pods and the seed fell everywhere. At the end of the session the tarpaulin was gradually lifted with all the seed in the centre – the seed transferred into buckets to be sieved and any trash removed. Bags of seed were kept for next year and a lot sold off to seed merchants for marketing across the country. Our practice was to sow the seed in March/April with a hand pushed ‘Planet’ drill (inset) on a small area of lighter soil. When the plants were strong seedlings, they would be transplanted in the main field using a 3 man transplanter, each plant being placed 1 yard between rows and 1 yard apart.

S for shoddy. What on earth is shoddy? – mostly the word now relates to substandard workmanship but in this case, it was waste wool or woollen products. With ‘heavy’ soils such as clays it was known for many years that keeping the soil open with such as shoddy would offer a natural soil improvement. I have found references to its use in 1845 from a discussion society’s records near Sheffield, further references have been in WW11 ‘Dig for Victory’ Monthly growing guides. In Bedfordshire it was transported down from the woollen mills around Bradford in old wool sacks and stacked at the side of the fields destined for brussels. Prior to ploughing the shoddy was spread over the field by the manure spreaders of the day. These were not complex machines, merely a large box on wheels with a floor mounted chain and slat conveyor feeding simple rear mounted rotating baffles. Any more complication and the shoddy would have wound around every part – it tried hard to do that any way; sharp knives were always ready!

Next the ploughs came in, where I worked these were just 3 furrows wide with bar points to penetrate the clay – often extremely hard. We used International BTD 6 and 8 crawler tractors, the tracks also had the action of spreading and chewing up the shoddy. Shoddy was thus incorporated within the soil helping to keep the soil open, maintain moisture, releasing nutrients and some say helping keep slugs at bay!

S for soot! This I was not prepared for but again references confirm it has the benefit of a slow release fertiliser and darkened the soil so absorbing more heat from the sun. The chimneys in Bradford provided the soot where the mills still used steam for power thus coal was burnt in huge quantities. The chimneys of course needed sweeping and the product arrived by the brussels fields stacked giving the appearance of half a black haystack. In early May the soot was spread. This is where I came in with 3 others, 1 driving the tractor and 3 grafting! The farm had hand spread the soot from buckets in previous years. Looking to mechanise the task a trailer was used to carry the bags and, on the rear, had an adaption belt driven from a wheel. This belt through a simple clutch caused a rotating cross shaft cell device to ‘meter’ the soot from a low hopper through chutes to the soil around the brussels.

All we had to do was to load and then ride the trailer heaving and cutting the filthy sometimes broken bags – well overweight by modern standards, over the hopper ensuring a continuous soot supply to the hopper. Half bricks and bits of iron and lumps of soot all came in the bags, all handled with the soot dust swirling and getting everywhere. No masks at that time just a knotted handkerchief over your nose. We started at 4.30 am and finished around 10.00 am otherwise the soot on your skin would burn in the sun. No risk assessments and Health and Safety then! The first day I returned home and walked in the kitchen my Grandma screamed, she didn’t recognise me at all and thought something else was going on. No showers then at home just a large bath with a gas geyser. 2 full baths got me clean and I could have the rest of the day off to enjoy the piece work rates of more than £2.00 per day.

Oh! Yes, the brussels loved it, they greened up within days and grew rapidly!

It is known that around the mid 1960s both soot and shoddy spreading ceased. Coal firing for steam power ended and a declining woollen industry confined the practices to history.

*‘Planet’ drill Curtesy of the Vintage Horticulture and Garden Machinery Club

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