Growing Brussels Sprouts

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Brussels sprouts on a plate

For many gardeners, growing a good crop of Brussels sprouts doesn't come easy. My first crops grew to lopsided nubs, and indeed several seasons passed before I began harvesting crisp, sweet sprouts. The truth be told, Brussels sprouts have exacting cultural needs unlike those of any other vegetable. But when those needs are met, you get a two-month (or longer) supply of this gourmet vegetable, which are especially welcome in early winter.

I've sorted the special needs of Brussels sprouts into a seasonal checklist of details that should not be skipped over. Brussels sprouts plants are as tough as any cabbage, but special techniques are needed to make the most of their stalwart nature.

Plant at the right time

Gardeners in the UK set out Brussels sprouts seedlings in April and grow them just like long-season cabbage. This will work in the cool maritime climates of the US, but in most areas it is best to delay planting until early summer. Use multiple sources – your GrowVeg Garden Planner (using the split season option in warm climates), state extension service publications, and the knowledge of local gardeners to find your perfect planting window, which may be only one week in early to midsummer. In my garden, for example, I have learned that I must start seeds indoors between June 3-10. Keep records and make notes until you find the right planting dates for you.

Brussels sprouts seedlings

Choose a site with heavy clay soil

Brussels sprouts grow into stiff, topheavy plants with skinny bases that are easily damaged by rocking in the wind. Plants that fall over will continue to grow, but will not produce nearly as well as plants that stay upright. Light, sandy soils cannot adequately anchor Brussels sprouts plants, even when they are propped up with stakes and have soil mounded up around the base. Dense clay loam with a few rocks is essential. A slightly acidic to near neutral pH is ideal. In the UK where the soil-borne disease called clubroot is common, some gardeners have found that lightly dusting the planting hole with lime reduces problems and increases yields.

Provide slow-release fertilizer

Brussels sprouts plants are heavy feeders that must enjoy uninterrupted growth. If you have rotted poultry manure, you will find no better use for it than as a pre-plant fertilizer for Brussels sprouts. Packaged organic fertilizers are fine, too. Thoroughly mix your fertilizer of choice into the planting site several days before you plan to set out your plants.

Brussels sprouts

Use row covers to prevent insect pests

Numerous insects from cabbage worms to grasshoppers will quickly devour unprotected Brussels sprouts seedlings. Lightweight garden fleece or row covers made from tulle will protect plants as they soak up summer's heat – an essential factor in the making of a good crop. If you live where summers are very hot, do not wait until the weather cools down in the fall to set out plants. This I learned the hard way: Brussels sprouts must have a good shot of summer sun to grow into big, robust plants.

Keep roots cool, moist and well fed

I favor a grass clipping mulch for Brussels sprouts, which keeps the soil cool while contributing a little nitrogen. Brussels sprouts should never be allowed to dry out completely, and I like to feed them with a high nitrogen liquid fertilizer every two to three weeks, just in case they need it. Ideally, you want Brussels sprouts to grow into stocky, knee high plants before they elongate and start popping out sprouts. Once production begins, each plant produces about five sprouts weekly. By the time the harvest finishes (December at my house), each plant should have produced 30 or more sprouts on a 4-foot long stalk.

Brussels sprouts

Things seldom go perfectly in the garden, so I always plant two or three more plants than I need. Plants that fall over get pulled out, because in addition to not producing well, I have found that they become aphid magnets. Healthy upright plants have fewer problems with this chronic pest of fall, which can be managed to some extent with weekly harvesting followed by spritzing with insecticidal soap. Survivors can be rinsed off with cool water when the sprouts are cleaned before cooking.

Harvested Brussels sprouts will keep in the fridge for a couple of months, but of course they will never last that long. I favor braising sprouts cut into halves, quarters or thin slices in hot butter or olive oil, which brings out the beauty and flavor of this challenging yet supremely rewarding vegetable.

By Barbara Pleasant

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Comments

 
"OK Barbara, you have convinced me to give brussels sprouts one more try. I had amazing success this year with a fall cole crop this year but shied away from brussels sprouts. I have always grown them in the spring. My fall crop suffered from white flies-any idea of how to get rid of them?"
Claudia M on Friday 4 January 2013
"Because of their small size, whiteflies can be trapped on yellow cards or boards coated with an half-and-half mixture of dishwashing liquid and petroleum jelly. Better yet, collect them with a small hand-held vacuum, which will get adults and nymphs. Also try rinsing off the whiteflies with a strong spray of water. The next day, spray survivors with insecticidal soap. Good luck!"
Barbara Pleasant on Friday 4 January 2013
"I don't understand why most people don't like them...guess because the ones in the grocery stores tend to be rubbery and bitter? I love them and most "cousins". I ordered broccoli in a restaurant the other night and the waitress said she was sorry they were out...would I mind substituting asparagus??? Felt like Brer Rabbit..."
Tinkabell on Friday 4 January 2013
"Actually, brussels sprouts are increasingly popular, with US consumption up more than 50 percent in the last decade or so. "
Barbara Pleasant on Friday 4 January 2013
"I'm in VA and my soil is clay and granite! Since you say clay is good (usually not a good thing)I may just have to try them this year. As for chicken litter...I have 40+ so that won't be a problem. I also have a horse and two goats...plenty of fertalizer. BTW, I always enjoy reading your articles. Have learned lots over the years."
Tinkabell on Friday 4 January 2013
"Thank you for the white fly elimination strategies,Barbara. "
Claudia M on Friday 4 January 2013
"This is the first year I tried brussels sprouts. My crop turned out with small very loose heads, almost non edible. Any thoughts are appreciated. "
Mary O on Friday 4 January 2013
"Mary, small loose heads can have several causes, but the main one is a bad planting date, so the plants mature in hot weather. Where I live, if you plant brussels sprouts in spring (April), you will get inedible "blown" sprouts in July. Planting later, in June or early July, results in plants that mature in cooler weather and produce much nicer sprouts."
Barbara Pleasant on Saturday 5 January 2013
"I've found I've had much better production by planting these as a fall crop. Also have fewer insect pests. Home grown brussels sprouts are the best! "
doccat5 on Saturday 5 January 2013
"Thank you Barbara. I may have started my seeds too early. I live in Western New York and set my small plants out at the end of May. I'll try a little later this year. Thanks again. Mary O"
Mary O on Saturday 5 January 2013
"Our sprouts were maturing nicely, ready for for Christmas lunch, until the mice started eating them!"
Louise on Sunday 6 January 2013
"I h ave grown brussels for 25 years on my allotment . 2112 was my first failure. The sprouts failed to button. Could this be due to the abnormal rainfall in 2012? Or is there some other reason?"
Bob Kitching on Sunday 13 January 2013
"Had my first successful crop of brussel sprouts in the summer of 2012. I used garden cloth to cover the row and watered daily since the season was abnormally dry. We are still enjoying my October harvest and have half of what I put up still in the freezer. We wait to harvest after the first frost, seems to sweeten the buds a bit."
Sue Bynum on Saturday 19 January 2013
"Do you know what happens if you don't pick the buds? Do they elongate into branches?"
Ruth Kassinger on Monday 29 April 2013
"Ruth, that is exactly what they do provided the plants have been exposed to cold weather. The smaller unpicked buds elongate, while the larger ones split to allow the emergence of the bud-bearing branches. "
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 29 April 2013
"Having planted out my first batch of young plants yesterday, I have just checked them to find that not a leaf is now visible. What could of caused this?"
Brian on Monday 3 June 2013
"Rabbits in your garden? They love cabbage family plants. If they just dropped off perhaps the plants dried out too much before you planted them. That will cause the leaves to drop off even if the soil was moist when you transplanted. Were the leaves on the ground or just gone?"
Sue Bynum on Tuesday 4 June 2013
"Good advice, Sue. My first thought was rabbits. My second thought was that right now, this week or next, are perfect for starting brussels sprouts seeds. Brian, hope you have a few more seeds for sowing replacements. "
Barbara Pleasant on Tuesday 4 June 2013
"Hello! I started brussels sprouts plants inside June 10 for fall. They are 3 inches tall and have weak stems, even though I have grown them under strong lights placed a few inches away. They are falling over! It's been very warm- could that be a problem? Also, can I plant the lanky seedlings deeply like tomatoes to save them?"
Kerrie on Monday 8 July 2013
"Yes, Kerrie, that is exactly what you do. The basal stem can be allowed to rest diagonally in the top inch of soil. After a couple of weeks, you can add more soil to help keep the seedlings upright, then stake the plants when they get taller. "
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 8 July 2013
"My Brussel plants seem to be growing well with the exception of a couple that appear to be 'Srpouting' or 'Seeding'. Should I just cut off the top of these sprouts or have they GONE"
Jim Goode on Thursday 11 July 2013
"In most areas, brussels sprouts should be young seedlings now -- I transplanted mine last week. Brussels sprouts planted in spring mature in summer, when the weather is all wrong for them. Summer-planted sprouts mature in late fall, when it's cool. It sounds like you have "blasted" sprouts that won't taste good. Unless you live in a very cool summer climate, I would pull up the plants and compost them."
Barbara Pleasant on Thursday 11 July 2013
"My brussels sprouts have been attacked by the cabbage worms this year. Are they ruined at this point? There are many holes in the leaves now. Would love to know if I should continue on the path of ridding the plants of the worms or throw in the towel. Thanks!"
Danielle on Monday 15 July 2013
"Spraying plants with a Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) or spinosad pesticide will stop the feeding (both organically approved). The only question is whether the plants are over-mature from spring planting. Except in cold climates like Alaska, early summer planting is best."
Barbara Pleasant on Tuesday 16 July 2013
"My brussel sprouts have grown tall with a firm stem and large leaves but no sprouts are visible. I planted them in May. What I wanted to know is if the leaves would be okay to use in stir fry etc. I don't want to waste anything."
Annie Howes on Wednesday 17 July 2013
"Unfortunately brussels sprouts leaves don't taste very good. The little topknot that forms on mature plants looks tender, but when I compared it to other greens, it didn't make the grade. You may want to stake your plants, because the heavier they get, the more likely they are to fall over. Sprouts should start forming on the lower stem soon. "
Barbara Pleasant on Thursday 18 July 2013
"Hi there friends, pleasant article and good urging commented here, I am genuinely enjoying by these."
Beane on Wednesday 28 August 2013
"Barbara All of a sudden my robust plants have been hit by Whiteflies...What is the recommendation that you use?"
Jeff on Saturday 7 September 2013
"Catch adults on yellow sticky traps; vacuum adults from leaves; remove infested leaves; indoors, release Encarsia formosa parasitic wasps to control greenhouse whitefly; outdoors, attract native parasitic wasps and predatory beetles; spray with insecticidal soap or garlic oil; as a last resort, spray with pyrethrin. Straight from the latest IPM program from VA tech. The suggestion of organics is a big step forward for these guys. LOL "
Cathy Smith on Sunday 8 September 2013
"In addition to Cathy's suggestions, you can start pulling off a few lower leaves to open up the plants a bit. I would use insecticidal soap right away, and apply again in a week. It may help to cover the plants with a lightweight cloth, like a bed sheet, for a day after spraying with soap. Do follow label directions. Brussels sprouts tolerate insecticidal soap very well when it is applied correctly."
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 9 September 2013
"In the UK on old gardener told me that to prevent sprouts 'blowing' that when transplanting from seedbed to growing site the plants should be pulled out of the ground ,not dug up to reduce the amount of fine hairy roots on the plant which has been found to promote soft sprouts.Also the plants need to be well 'firmed in' when they are transplanted. I am sure this will provoke comment but the proof has been in my producing good firm sprouts after many years of very indifferent results . Maybe some will find this a bit radical but for me it worked!!!."
Gordon Wheeler on Friday 4 October 2013
"Growing Brussels sprouts for the first time in raised beds. They are not forming properly and are opening up like a flower. Any suggestions "
Pamela Sillman on Sunday 8 December 2013
"Pamela, you have blown sprouts, which can be caused by hot weather or soft, cushy soil. Brussels sprouts like tight clay or other heavy soil, and will probably do better in your worst soil than in your best. If you live where winters are mild, keep waiting. The later sprouts may be better than the earlier ones."
Barbara Pleasant on Friday 13 December 2013
"I planted my brussel sprouts in late march, from seed, they're coming along nicely but I'm wondering when they'll begin to elongate. As of now they just look like large cabbage plants with no heads."
Corey on Sunday 15 June 2014
"Corey, keep your fingers crossed that your plants stay compact for a while. If they start producing sprouts in hot weather, most of them will be disappointing. It's better to have plants that start elongating in cool fall weather."
Barbara Pleasant on Tuesday 17 June 2014
"i am a total novice gardener ... quick question... can i plant my brussel seedlings near my grape vine and raspberry canes... i have a rather convenient space between the two. I have planted garlic, shallots and marigolds around the raspberry canes and i have about 6ft of space before the grapevine and fence .. i also have a small raised bed near the fence with carrots and onions and garlic growing there."
JACQUI K on Wednesday 15 April 2015
"I'm a little concerned that more than two Brussels sprouts plants would be crowded, because they grow to be very large plants. When the grapes and raspberries leaf out, the spot may be better for lettuce or chard, which can take a little shade in summer."
Barbara Pleasant on Thursday 16 April 2015
"Tried four years in a row. Stems are tall and strong but buds are the size of peas. Started late May as seeds and live in Massachusetts. Any suggestions?"
bob duquette on Saturday 18 April 2015
"Bob, I suggest growing a vigorous hybrid variety and fertilizing the plants often until early September. Your timing is right, but even with the right timing I have had small, slow sprouts with unenthusiastic varieties. With Brussels sprouts, you need the hybrid edge."
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 20 April 2015
"This is my first year of planting sprouts. I planted small plants and they seem to be doing well. They are about 10 inches tall and want to fall over, can I stake them??"
Jackie on Tuesday 19 May 2015
"Yes, Jackie, do stake them. I use strips of cloth to tie up the plants, which stay put nicely once they are secured."
Barbara Pleasant on Wednesday 20 May 2015
"The lower leaves of my sprouts are turning yellow, can you tell me why?"
Jackie on Saturday 27 June 2015
"Most members of the cabbage family shed their lower leaves as they grow. It is not unusual at all for them to turn yellow and drop off, one at a time. It is always a good idea to feed Brussels sprouts, though. They need more nutrients that most other veggies."
Barbara Pleasant on Wednesday 1 July 2015
"I planted brussel sprout seedlings this June in a community garden. I have fertilized them every several weeks and kept them watered. It is now the end of September and they are starting to get tall and look very healthy but there are no sprouts at all. Why no sprouts? Will they form sprouts before winter or are they a lost cause? "
Erin OBrien on Friday 18 September 2015
"Erin, you can force the plants to get in gear by pinching off the tops. This is often done in September to hurry things along. "
Barbara Pleasant on Saturday 19 September 2015
"Hi Barbara, How frequently do you need to harvest brussel sprouts? Should it be harvested weekly, or can it be harvested every 15 days? Thank you, CZ"
Christina Zawerucha on Monday 20 June 2016
"Christina, it would depend on the weather. In late fall the sprouts will hold pretty well, but might become interesting to cabbage aphids if they remained unharvested too long. When you can't be around to harvest, root crops are the most willing to wait."
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 20 June 2016
"My brussel sprout plants look great, but the sprouts are very small, about the size of the tip of my pinky finger. I normally have good crops. I rotate every other year between broccoli and brussel sprouts. I fertilize regularly. Is it possible there is a nutrient missing from the soil?"
John on Wednesday 15 March 2017

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