Edible Landscaping

Edible of the Month: Brussels Sprouts

Brussels sprouts are stately looking plants in the garden that grow unabated until fall when the tiny "sprouts" appear for eating.

Brussels sprouts are really a tall-stemmed cabbage that makes many "heads" or sprouts along the stem instead of one large one at the top.

Brussels sprouts taste great when harvested after a frost and sauteed with olive oil, butter, salt and pepper.

I like cabbage, but not too much. So instead of growing rows of cabbages I grow Brussels sprouts. Think of Brussels sprouts as cabbages on a stick. The small, round, balls (botanically heads like a cabbage) form all along a Brussels sprouts’ stem, maturing from bottom to top. Originally hailing from Italy, Brussels sprouts became popular in Belgium in the 1500's and hence the name. They are easy to grow and a treasure in fall. Each stem can produce up to 50 "sprouts," meaning you don't have to grow many plants to have an abundant harvest.

These slow growing vegetables are one of my "plant it and forget about it" crops. They seem to just be taking up space, growing slowly until fall when the sprouts form along the stem. Because Brussels sprouts are cold tolerant you can harvest the sprouts well after frost has killed many other vegetables in the garden. In mild winter areas you can harvest into late winter.

Brussels sprouts are loaded with vitamins and are a great source of indole-3-carbinol, which is rumored to increase the male sex drive. Sounds like a romantic dinner with your spouse or partner featuring Brussels sprouts might just be the ticket. If you've found that Brussels sprouts have too strong a cabbage flavor, try eating them after a few frosty nights have sweetened their taste. They make tender morsels in casseroles or roasted with walnuts, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.

Planning

Brussels sprouts are a cool season crop in the cabbage family. Grow them as you would broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower. While in warm season areas you can probably directly sow seeds into the garden, in most areas either buy transplants at the local garden center or start seedlings indoors 6 weeks before your last frost date.

Brussels sprouts take all summer to mature, so be patient with the plants. I like to tuck them in parts of the garden where I’ve planted spring maturing crops such as peas, lettuce, and spinach. As those crops fade and are removed, there’s room for the Brussels sprouts to expand. Since they grow straight upward and take up little room, consider tucking Brussels sprouts into a sunny area in a small space near the house or garage. The stately plants will surely elicit comments and, hopefully, praise.

There are many Brussels sprout varieties on the market for home gardeners, some hailing from England and Europe where they're more popular. Here are some of the best ones. They all mature in 90 to 110 days after transplanting in the garden and plants grow between 2- to 3-feet tall.

'Churchill Hybrid' – One of the earliest maturing Brussels sprout varieties on the market, it features vigorous growth and large-sized sprouts.

'Diablo Hybrid' – A late maturing variety that has medium-sized sprouts that hold well on the plant in fall without opening.

'Jade E Cross Hybrid' – A widely-adapted hybrid with tall plants and uniform, productive sprouts.

'Long Island Improved' – A quick maturing heirloom variety with densely packed sprouts.

'Nautic Hybrid' – A late maturing, highly disease-resistant variety with easy to harvest sprouts.

'Roodnerf' – An open pollinated variety from England with excellent eating qualities and good uniformity for an heirloom.

'Rubine' – This unique heirloom features purplish-red leaves, stems, and sprouts. The sprouts turn green when cooked, but have a delightful flavor. Similar to 'Falstaff'.

Preparation

Prepare a raised bed in a full sun location on well-drained soil one month before your last frost date. Amend the bed with a 1- to 2-inch thick layer of compost before planting.

Planting

Plant purchased or home raised Brussels sprout seedlings into the raised bed 2 weeks before the last frost date in your area. Plant seedlings 18 inches apart in rows spaced 24 inches apart. Although seedlings can take a light frost, if temperatures threaten to dip into the mid to low 20F’s, cover the bed with a floating row cover.

Care

Mulch the bed once the transplants are established with a 2- to 3-inch thick layer of untreated grass clippings, hay, or straw. The mulch will keep the weeds from growing and maintain the soil's moisture content. When plants are 1-foot tall, apply a side dressing of a granular organic fertilizer, such as 5-5-5. Keep the plants well watered during summer droughts. Avoid adding too much nitrogen fertilizer to your Brussels sprouts or the plants will be slow to produce sprouts.

As plants grow, consider staking the stems to keep them upright. Taller varieties will tend to flop over during summer thunderstorms and high winds. While the flopping doesn't curtail production, it does make it harder to pick the sprouts.

Young transplants can be attacked by aphids and cutworms. Spray insecticidal soap to control aphids and wrap newspaper 1-inch below and 2-inches above the ground around the stem to thwart cutworms. Cabbageworm and cabbage loopers are the other two primary pests of Brussels sprouts. Check periodically for small green caterpillars eating the leaves. Look for the young caterpillars on the undersides of leaves. Often the first signs of the cabbageworms are white butterflies and dark green droppings in the leaf crotches. To control this pest spray Bacillus thuriengensis (Bt) at the first sign of the caterpillars. Some areas may have problems with root rot and powdery mildew disease. Select resistant varieties if diseases are a problem in your area. Woodchuck and rabbits love to munch on young plants. Fence out these critters early in the season to keep them away.

Harvest

Check the lowest Brussels sprouts on the stem in late summer for maturity. When the sprouts are 1- to 1 1/2-inches in diameter begin picking. If you wait too long, the tightly packed sprouts will open and not be as tasty. First remove the leaf under the sprout and then snap off the sprouts with your fingers or cut them off with a sharp knife. If your sprouts are slow to form and mature, remove the growing point and top 6 inches of the stem. The sprouts should start sizing up a few weeks later.

Other brussels sprout stories:

Brussels Sprout Essentials
Brussels Sprouts
Brussels Sprouts Info

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