Bored with Brussels sprouts? Kale no longer cool? Johnny’s Selected Seeds is selling seeds for a brand new vegetable, a cross of the two. It will be ready for planting in Maine gardens next spring.

Kalettes, as they’ve been named, will grow tall in the garden, like Brussels sprouts. But instead of hard balls of tightly wound leaves, they will have small, open, multicolored florets, like kale. The press release announcing the new cross from the seed company in Winslow emphasized that Kalettes were created with traditional hybridization techniques and did not involve any genetic modification.

Hybridization is nothing new; it’s an ordinary way that new vegetables have been created probably since the dawn of agriculture. In this country, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were proud of many of the hybrids they created while they weren’t busy setting up a new country.

Usually the idea is to make improvements in a plant, as when two tomatoes are crossed to make a tomato that is more disease-resistant, ripens earlier or is more flavorful, said Steve Bellavia, who works in vegetable research at Johnny’s. (Or more likely in recent American history, to make a tomato that can stand up to cross-country shipping.)

Hybridization is done in the garden or a greenhouse and involves cross-pollinating plants. By contrast, genetic modification happens in a laboratory; a scientist takes DNA from one plant and adds it to another. Often, the goal is not to create a new plant but to modify an existing one – two notorious GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are corn and soybeans that can survive being sprayed with Roundup, an otherwise deadly weed killer.

So while the creation of a new plant from such different looking vegetables as kale and Brussels sprouts might seem perverse – or miraculous – remember, Bellavia said, “Brussels sprouts and kale are both the same species, as is cabbage (brassicas).”

As a comparison, all breeds of dogs can mate and produce offspring, Bellavia said, even if they are as different as a St. Bernard and a miniature poodle.

The last new vegetable introduced was Broccolini way back in 1993, a cross between broccoli and an Asian vegetable known as kai-lan. It hasn’t taken the world by storm. Sugar snap peas, a cross between a snow pea and a mutation of a garden pea, were introduced in 1979 – and is a new (well, no longer so new) vegetable that I love in my garden.

Other hybrids on most people’s menus include grapefruit, a hybrid of a sweet orange and a pomelo (another citrus) and those large, sweet Meyer lemons, a hybrid of a lemon and a mandarin orange.

A lot of work went into producing Kalettes, which is a trademarked name for the United States. Tozer Seeds of Britain spent 15 years developing the vegetable, called flower sprouts in Britain. Although the hybridizer can produce a new variety in a year, developers use time and repetition to be sure they have the best of the new plants.

Also, they grow several generations to make sure the new seeds will reliably produce the new hybrid and not revert to one of the parents – or even something entirely different. Johnny’s began testing the plants in U.S. gardens in 2009.

Interestingly, when Tozer began work on Kalettes, kale was not the trendy food with a reputation for nutrition that it has now. And Brussels sprouts, now beloved in roasted form at many a high-end restaurant come winter, weren’t on many eaters’ list of favorites, either. (My wife Nancy and I must have been early adopters because we’ve been eating Brussels sprouts for 30 years.)

“They were either lucky or prescient,” Bellavia said.

Kalettes come in three varieties. ‘Autumn Star’ is early season, ‘Mistletoe’ for mid-season and ‘Snowdrop’ late. Even the early one takes 110 days from transplanting before it produces edible Kalettes, so it will be September before people will be harvesting them.

Mature florets feature ruffled, purple-green petals. Johnny’s describes them as having a mild, sweet-nutty flavor that improves as the cooler, shorter days of fall give way to winter.

Bellavia said that in central Maine, where Johnny’s is located, home gardeners should plant seeds indoors sometime in April and move the plants outside to their gardens about six weeks later, roughly mid- to late-May. The times could be slightly earlier in southern and coastal Maine, he said.

Like Brussels sprouts, Kalettes need good, fertile soil with good drainage. And they will require watering if it hasn’t rained for a while.

All plants in the cabbage family are susceptible to cabbage worm, as are Kalettes. The easiest way to deal with the problem, Bellavia said, is to use a floating row cover when the plants are first transplanted. Alternatively, use Bt, an organic product that kills caterpillars. If the Kalettes get too big for the row cover, that’s OK, he said, because the cabbage worms and moths cause most problems when the plants are small.

Tozer selected Johnny’s as the only retail seller of the seeds for the home and small-farm markets in the United States. Several large companies were selected to grow Kalettes commercially.

I’m not much of a cook, but the press release announcing the sale of Kalettes said they “are suited to diverse preparation methods such as grilling, steaming, sautéing, stir-frying and roasting. Impressively, when lightly cooked they retain their unique coloration and plate appeal.”

In just about 12 months – after you have grown your own – you can check that out.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at [email protected]