How to Grow Brussels Sprouts
Brussels sprouts have gone from a forgotten vegetable to one of the most popular ingredients in organic cooking. As a vegetable that takes a long-time to grow, brussels sprouts are only valuable for patient gardeners who are willing to wait for a proper harvest. For the home gardener, a healthy brussels sprouts plant will produce tasty sprouts for many years with proper care and maintenance.
The ideal climate for the brussels sprout is an area with consistent cool weather and plenty of rain. Most parts of the American North-West are considered the best location for brussels sprout crops. Of course, thanks to modern gardening techniques, the plant can grow anywhere in the country. With sufficient rain and a temperature that is not too hot, sprouts will grow in even warmer USDA growth zones.
Brussels sprouts should be planted during the middle of spring for a summer harvest and at the very end of summer for a fall harvest. However, since the plant grows best in mild, cool weather, planting times should be adjusted based on growing location. Even plants in the warmest climates will develop fruit. Of course these plants will produce sprouts that are excessively bitter and brittle.
Brussels sprouts are part of the family of plants known as the cole crop. Other prominent members of crops in this family include kohlrabi, kale, collard greens, cauliflower, cabbage, and broccoli. Like other cole crops, brussels sprouts are best eaten after being cooked to soften both the taste and texture of the plant.
For best results, plants require at least a half day of full sun. Unlike other, less-hardy crops, the more direct sunlight the better for growing brussels sprouts. The vegetable also requires high-nitrogen soil enriched with organic compost or other growth material. Since brussels sprouts prefer plenty of water, a great drainage system is required for anyone growing plants outside of naturally moist zones. The optimal soil pH for the brussels sprout plant is just under 7. As with other crops, increasing or decreasing acidity is easily achieved with food-safe soil acids and bases.
An organic fertilizer or vegetable-growth compost is perfect for brussels sprouts. Be careful not to let the leaves of individual bulbs touch the ground, especially when using manure or other type of non-food fertilizer. A tiny spread of mulch can protect brussels sprouts from being contaminated on the ground during growth periods.
Somewhat unlike other vegetables, brussels sprouts require a higher concentration of the mineral boron. All plants require some proportion of boron, but brussels sprouts need more boron than other plants. If the sprouts lack boron they will grow tiny plants and have weak root bases. Most home gardeners rely on a special mix of sodium borate with water and spread it equally over all parts of the soil that grow sprouts. Of course, over use of boron or other chemicals will cause damage to growing plants.
To plant brussels sprouts, place individual seedlings such that approximately half of the plant is still above ground. Root structure requires plenty of water, but the leaves need sufficient sunlight. A complete watering of the entire soil and area around the plant is required every time you move or adjust brussels sprouts plants. A pure organic fertilizer and thin layer of mulch provides for the best growth conditions for sprouts.
Once a crop has grown large enough, prepare to thin individual plants and move them into new soil areas. Transplants should be spaced large enough so that every plant can grow to maximum potential. At least two-to-three feet are required before sprouts can grow as large as possible. It is critical with brussels sprouts to move transplants into new positions as soon as possible. Even a day out of the soil with no water may kill or permanently damage a plant.
Brussels sprouts are susceptible to a wide variety of bugs and insects. Moths, worms, maggots, and other common garden pests create trouble with brussels sprouts. Unfortunately crops are also damaged by mildew, rust, and boggy conditions. Since brussels sprouts are more delicate than other vegetables, be sure to place a small layer of mulch between the soil and individual plants to give them sufficient protection.
You will be able to tell when brussels sprouts are ready for harvest by watching the growth in the head of the plant. Tiny sprouts will grow first. Then, weeks later, the heads will get to the size of golf balls with individual heads sprouting from every direction. To harvest the plant, hold each head individually and twist with even force. The twisting motion will remove individual sprouts without harming the larger root structure. Be sure to cut off any dead or decaying leaves or sprouts as well to prevent your plant from wasting energy on unnecessary growth. Brussels sprouts are hardy once properly harvested and can be kept in the ground to winter as well as being frost tolerant with a mulch cover.
The best brussels sprout harvest will occur with optimal growing conditions. Full days of strong sunlight combined with cool, almost frosty, nighttime temperatures will produce the largest and most flavorful sprouts. Once extremely cold winter approaches you can shelter your plant by cutting the top of the plant completely off to allow the remainder to go dormant.
Expect a well-cared for plant to provide up to three pounds of fresh sprouts per season. With proper maintenance during the winter, the same plant will then produce another three pounds of fresh sprouts the next year.
To eat brussels sprouts, be sure to keep any harvest crop in the refrigerator. Keep in mind that the best tasting crop should be eaten within one-to-two days of being pulled out of the ground. Cook sprouts both for flavor and texture before serving.