Brussels Sprouts have long gotten a bad rap, being shunned and delegated to the garbage disposal or the compost heap by all but a few of the die-hard sprouts connoisseurs. It can be true that Brussels sprouts that are not grown properly can be loose-leaved, called blown by those in-the-know, and as a result have little to no flavor or can be bitter and nowhere close to the flavor of their larger cousins, the cabbage. But, if grown properly, these mini-cabbage heads are firm, chock full of flavor and may even become a family staple, if not a favorite.
The first thing that you need to know is that Brussels Sprouts plants grow best when you time their planting for a cool-weather or fall harvest. In fact, in milder climates and where heavy snow cover can act as an insulator, Brussels sprouts can be harvested throughout the winter months. A check with your closest university extension office should be able to tell you if that's possible in your area. Warm days and frosty nights only enhance the flavor of home-grown Brussels sprouts, which bear absolutely no resemblance to what you'll find in your grocery store produce aisle. It is really quite amazing to bundle up and go out to the garden in the dead of winter and uncover these green gems, so consider yourself very lucky if you are able to make that happen!
A good rule to growing the best Brussels sprouts is to count back three months from mid to late fall, or the first heavy frost, for planting. Brussels sprouts are also much easier to grow from plants than from seeds; if starting from seed; start them indoors, allowing 10 to 14 days for germination and then once the first two leaves (seed leaves) appear, you'll want to transplant them to a deeper seed bed or containers, replanting them to a depth of just below the seed leaves and watering in well. Wait until they are strong and tall enough (4 to 6-inches or 4 to 6 weeks) to be transplanted again into their permanent bed. It is important to note that transplanting Brussels sprouts is always necessary for optimal growth to occur. Transplanting encourages the growth of a much stronger root system that funnels essential nutrients to the plant and supports the weight of the plant. (If purchasing our plants, we have already done this part, which eliminates that necessity for you!)
The second most important aspect to growing firm, tasty Brussels sprouts is the texture and quality of your soil. They prefer a heavy, firm soil and one that is fertile, so mixing in generous amounts of manure or compost is highly recommended. Expert sprout growers have a mantra they live byfeed the soil, not the plantwhich they consider essential to growing yummier Brussels sprouts. Also, once you've dug in your compost or manure, allow time for it to settle in before planting. Remember that sprouts like firm soil, so watering the bed and allowing it to settle for a few days is preferable to planting right away. And if you live in an area with hot summers and early falls, your Brussels sprouts will grow better with afternoon shade. If your garden area is in full sun, plant your sprouts where they are protected by the shade of taller plants or trees in the afternoon or where you can put up a shade cloth to protect the tender plants.
Brussels sprouts also prefer a pH of 6.5 to 7.0, which is considered neutral. A simple, inexpensive soil tester can quickly give you the results and we have both Espoma's Organic Traditions Garden Lime (to raise the pH) or High Yield Aluminum Sulfate (to decrease your soil pH). Organic mulch can also raise the pH and sulfur will do just the opposite, but both of those will take more time than the lime or aluminum sulfate, which adjust the pH rather swiftly.
Once you have properly prepared the bed, you can either rake very lightly and sow your seeds about 1/2-inch deep and 6-inches apart or transplant your ready seedlings about 24-inches apart. Remember to firm the soil around the plants and if you hoe to keep down the weeds, don't hoe too deeply. In fact, if you regularly mound a bit of the soil up around the stalk and firm it down, you will ensure the best support as the Brussels sprouts grow taller.
Summer heat can stunt Brussels sprouts growth and cause bitter flavor, so to keep the plants growing vigorously during the heat of the summer, give them an application of Vegetable Fertilizer when transplanting, then a feeding of nitrogen-rich fertilizer when they are about 12-inches tall and water regularly. Supplemental feedings with Neptune's Harvest or Jungle Flora soil conditioners every 6 weeks is an easy way to further enhance production and to ensure a flavorful harvest. If you are faced with a hotter than usual late summer or fall, you can â€˜top' your Brussels sprouts plants, which simply means removing the growing point, as a way to force the sprouts to mature faster, enabling you to harvest while the heads are still firm and sweet.
There you have it! It sounds like a lot of work, and the first year or two may be a time for learning what works best in your area, but as you become more experienced, it won't seem like work at alland the reward of firm, moist, tasty Brussels sprouts is well-worth the little bit of additional effort that you put into it. Trust me!
When preparing, overcooking is the death of Brussels sprouts. You don't want to boil away their flavor or turn them to mush, and they are best hot, right out of the oven or pan. There are many exceptional recipes that involve roasting or baking them, sometimes with a bit of olive oil and fine-grained sea salt, or adding your favorite grated cheese; one recipe even uses toasted hazelnuts for crunch! Surf the web to look for an inspiring recipe. They are all simple, with few ingredients and have converted some of the most adamant Brussels sprouts haters.
To learn how to harvest what you've grown, refer to our blog on How to Harvest Brussels Sprouts.