Named after the city of Brussels, where they first became popular, Brussels sprouts are great-tasting winter vegetables. While green sprouts are a common sight, you can also grow red or purple varieties if you want to add extra color to your dinner plate.
Sprouts are staples of many vegetable gardens, and are also an excellent source of many nutrients, such as vitamins c and d. These slow-growing plants don’t start to produce sprouts until they reach their full height, however, so you’ll need patience to successfully cultivate this crop. In return, you’ll be rewarded with a continuous supply of great-tasting bite-sized delights.
Brussels Sprouts Varieties
There are a wide range of varieties of sprouts available. However, your choice is limited to varieties that suit your growing conditions.
Some of the most popular varieties are:
- Jade Cross: A reliable, compact variety that’s resistant to a number of common diseases, and is tolerant of windy positions.
- Red Delicious: A late-season variety that produces tightly packed red sprouts that retain their color when cooked.
- Falstaff: A nutty, purple-red sprout that takes a long time to mature. The color deepens following a hard frost and is retained after cooking.
- Nelson: An early-maturing, reliable variety that produces scores of even-sized, dark, sweet sprouts.
- Trafalgar: A modern hybrid that produces heavy, medium-sized sprouts.
- Diabloe AGM: A mid- to late-season vigorous variety that tolerates poor soils.
- Royal Marvel F1: A productive early variety that’s resistant to many common diseases.
Sowing and Planting Brussels Sprouts
You can either purchase sprouts as young plants or grow them from seed. While the latter method is cheaper, if you don’t have the space (or time) to care for delicate seedlings then buying young plants is a good solution.
Growing from seed
Seeds are best started off under cover in modular seedling trays. Depending on the variety, you can start sowing as early as February. This allows for plenty of growing time before an early August harvest.
Sow one seed in each module at a depth of 2cm. Germination will take 1-2 weeks.
Following germination, remove any unwanted shoots with scissors. Pinching out risks damaging healthy seedlings. Allow the rest to continue growing under glass, and don’t let them dry out.
Where to Plant
Brussels sprouts are a hardy crop that can grow in most locations. Ideally your chosen site will receive between 5-6 hours of sunlight every day.
Sprouts grow best in firm to dense, clay loam soils. While sprouts can grow in light or sandy soils, these conditions don’t offer the necessary support that top-heavy plants require. This means that even with support, sprouts can topple over in lighter soils. Ideally the soil will also contain plenty of nitrogen and will be either neutral or slightly alkaline.
Remember as well that sprouts are part of the Brassica family. If you’re growing these crops year after year, you’ll need to employ a basic crop rotation system.
Preparing the Soil
Working in a good amount of organic matter will improve the soil’s ability to retain moisture. Sprouts need a lot of moisture and water to sustain their intense growth habit. Doing this preparation work in the fall before a spring planting gives the soil time to resettle.
A few days before planting, apply a general-purpose fertilizer to the soil to help enrich it further.
Use a trowel to dig a hole that’s slightly deeper than the seedling’s root ball. When placed in the hole, the first true leaves of the seedling should sit just above the soil.
When you’re happy with the position, press the soil around the plant firmly with your fingers. Sprouts like a firm bed, so I always stamp the soil down, compacting it as much as possible.
Space your sprouts out as per the instructions on the packet or label. Depending on the variety, sprouts need to be spaced up to 90cm apart.
Water the seedlings in well and mulch the ground. This will help to keep it cool and moist.
Caring for Brussels Sprout Plants
With the proper care, your seedlings will grow into stocky, knee-high plants. Once they’ve reached their full height, each plant will each produce about 5 sprouts a week.
Water your sprouts regularly. The soil should always be moist or damp.
Fertilizing and Mulching
There’s no need to fertilize sprouts planted in already fertile soil. In poorer soils, applying a dose of organic, slow release granular fertilizer will provide a steady supply of nutrients throughout the growing season.
A top-dressing of high nitrogen fertilizer, such as dried poultry manure pellets, can be applied once the plant is established. This will encourage good, healthy leaf growth. Alternatively, applying a couple of teaspoons, about 10ml, of dried blood or ammonium sulfate around the base of the plants is just as beneficial.
Brussels sprout roots are shallow and susceptible to damage. For this reason many people avoid cultivating the soil around sprouts completely while they are growing. However, if you choose to, you can carefully remove any weeds as soon as they appear.
Mound soil or mulch around the plants’ stems when sprouts begin to form. This will provide extra support as the plant becomes increasingly top-heavy. Staking will also provide support, particularly on windy days.
Don’t worry if your plants do fall over. As long as the stems remains intact, they’ll continue to grow and produce sprouts. They just won’t be as productive as upright plants.
Common Problems and how to deal with them
Like other members of the Brassica family, Brussels sprouts are susceptible to blackleg, black rot and club rot. These—and other common diseases—can be avoided by employing a basic crop rotation system. Not over watering and maintaining a soil pH level of around 7.0 will also diminish the chances of disease striking.
Clubroot is a vigorous disease that causes leaves to discolor or wilt while also stunting growth. Below ground, it turns the plant’s root system into a foul-smelling, swollen mush. A clubroot infestation means that you must avoid growing brassicas in that area of the garden for up to 9 years. Crop rotation or planting in a raised bed are two easy ways to avoid clubroot.
The cabbage root fly targets all members of the Brassica family, including sprouts. Place a Brassica collar around the plant’s stem to keep the cabbage root fly away until the plant is established.
Cabbage white butterflies are other destructive pests, and their caterpillars can quickly decimate Brassica crops. Protect your plants by covering them with netting or a horticultural fleece.
Blown sprouts are open, leafy sprouts, not the nice, tightly compacted ones that we desire. Usually caused by planting in unsettled or loose ground this problem is less likely to occur in F1 hybrid varieties. Blown sprouts should be removed, while they are still edible they will not taste particularly nice.
Companion Planting for Brussels Sprouts
Brussels sprouts do well alongside other members of the Brassica family such as kale, cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli. Just be warned, however, that planting lots of crops from the same family together can help diseases spread quickly.
Other good companion plants include:
Plants to Avoid
Brussels sprouts don’t grow well when planted close to strawberries, kohlrabi, and pole beans.
Harvesting and Storing
Sprouts at the bottom of the plant will mature first. These are ready for harvesting when they reach the size of a large marble. Don’t allow sprouts to get much larger than this because they may crack or turn bitter.
How to Harvest
Sprouts grow in the plant’s leaf joints, so you can remove the leaf below the sprout to make harvesting easier. Once the leaf is removed, carefully twist and pull the sprout away from the plant. Alternatively, you can cut the sprout away from the plant with a clean knife.
Following the initial harvest a second crop may start to grow at the base of the plant. These later sprouts are just as edible, but they won’t be as tightly packed as the first crop.
The leafy tops of the plant are also edible. Removing the leafy tops also encourages the any remaining sprouts to mature before the growing season ends.
Storing Brussels Sprouts
You can store fresh, unwashed sprouts in plastic bags in the refrigerator for a couple of months.
While they can tolerate light frosts, sprouts won’t survive a hard frost. As a result, if you still have sprouts to pick as the growing season ends, pull up the entire plant. Pot these whole plants and store them in a root cellar, or similar cold, dark location. You can continue to harvest these plants for an additional 2-3 weeks.
Brussels sprouts are a great addition to any vegetable garden. Just keep in mind that Brussels sprouts are biennial: they’ll only create sprouts every other year. If you’d like to harvest these beauties annually, then sow them for two consecutive years. This way, they’ll “leapfrog” and and supply you with deliciousness accordingly.
As long as you have the patience to supply the right conditions during the entirety of their long growing period, you’ll be rewarded with a continuous supply of great-tasting, vitamin-packed sprouts to enjoy.