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Brussels Sprouts
(Brassica oleracea gemmifera)


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Cultivars

Brussels sprout plants

A vegetable unjustly disdained by those who know only the tough, bitter, overgrown junk available in the supermarkets (well, arguably it is just for such folk to disdain it), it should thrive in our locale, though we've had problems with it--timing is crucial, for the species likes a fairly long growing season that is cool when the sprouts themselves start to develop, and ours was probably off. Timing is a bit tricky; it needs to go in early enough to develop some before summer's maximum heat (which it doesn't like), but late enough that it can get the "kiss of frost" necessary to properly convert its starches and bring out its best taste. It looks like the time to start is sometime from April through June; mid-May is probably about right. (There's more discussion of this farther down the page.)

Also: whatever you do, don't prepare them by boiling them; roast them, stir-fry them, braise them--just don't go all English-cooking ("boil 'em till they surrender") with them.

This is another item with a fairly large number of variants, each--as always--being "the best," none with reliable taste information available. And most of the touted kinds are hybrids; open-pollinated sprouts are--in North America, though not in Europe--almost lost. Of the few open-pollinated varieties still available here, probably the best bet is the Dutch cultivar Roodnerf, which seems to have both seedsmen and gardeners excited and pleased. Or, if you want to try a red OP Brussels sprout, you probably want Red Bull, of which one supplier said "offers smaller yields of dark red sprouts, but has a milder, delicate, nuttier flavour than standard green types." (Another OP red said to be decent is Falstaff.)


Planting

First, and always with any brassica crop: Remember to rotate your crops! Planting brassicas, of any kinds, in the same ground more often than once every four years runs the risk of clubroot infestation--and once you get that, the ground is useless for up to a decade. Don't take needless chances, even with "catch crops" of radishes.


Timing

Timing is the paramount consideration in planting Brussels sprouts. They can be an extraordinarily finicky-seeming plant, but almost all problems relating to them arise from planting at the wrong time. Virtually all sources agree that, as one succinctly put it: "The secret to a good sprout harvest is a proper planting date." They can tolerate cold, even frost and snow, but--even more than most brassicas--they dislike heat. (One university says "In general, Brussels sprouts will produce best when daytime temperatures average about 65° F. or less"; another source says "do best with day temperatures less than 80°.") Moreover, to develop any decent sort of flavor, the sprouts have to have experienced frost--summer-picked sprouts are bitter (the frost causes some starches to convert to sugars).

The broad consensus seems to be that sprouts need to go in sometime from April through June; mid-May is probably about right. On the other hand, most sources say to put out the transplants at least 90 days prior to the first frost date, with some suggesting 100 or even 120 days before; fine, but our problem is that determining the "first frost date", which is the usual reckoning point in calculating sprout-growing, is hard. Depending on how one defines a "frost", the date could range from mid-September to the start of November. One source stated that "Brussels are a cool weather crop that grow best at around 60°-65° F. They will grow well in temperatures up to 75° F." Well, if we wait for the average daytime high to drop to 75°, we are into mid-September, which is comically late.

There really is no good answer. It looks to us like about the best we can do is transplant in mid-May, hope that the transplants can manage, if not splendidly at least tolerably in mid-summer, and look to harvest around mid-November (which is typically around our first snowfall). That's obviously not ideal at either end, but is probably as good as it gets hereabouts for this long-season crop.

(Roodnerf is a pretty long-term cultivar, one source quoting 225 days--over 7 months; it might need planting out even earlier, else one is harvesting at New Year's, though with sprouts that's not as silly as it might sound.)

Since Brussels sprouts are, like most other brassicas, normally and best started as indoors seedlings, then transplanted, with expert sources suggesting a good 6 weeks in pot, we are thus looking to start our seedlings around the start of April (or possibly even earlier).


Starting Seedlings

These are much like broccoli--get your seeds started timely, because you want to transplant them when they're vigorous, but while still young: plants that remain too long in seed flats do not do well. A good compromise is to allow about 6 weeks for indoors growth.

Plant seed ¼ to ½ inch deep. Sprouts germinate best at a soil temperature of about 80° F., so keep your seed trays warm (there are pad-like electrical warmers that can keep nice, even temperatures in your seedling flats)--but keep the air temperature around seedlings, once they have germinated, mild, say 60° or so. Give them as much light as possible--use artificial light (plant-growth fluorescent tubes suspended about 2 inches above the seedlings' tops) if necessary--else they'll be leggy and weak. Provide for good air circulation around them, too. Keep developing seedlings at least an inch apart if using trays, or, better, start each in a 4-inch pot.


The Bed

Brussels sprouts are generally treated like broccoli or cauliflower and suchlike brassicas. They are largely indifferent to soil type (from sand to clay), though they do need well-drained soil. But: Several sources suggest planting in soil that has not been enriched with any nitrogen source (apparently, sprouts in high-nitrogen soils grow gangbusters, but are too busy leafing and stemming to bother setting sprouts).


Transplanting Out

Brussels sprouts require even more space than broccoli--set them about 18 inches apart in a deep-dug or raised bed. They should be strong and solid at transplant: at least 4 and perhaps better 6 weeks old.


Growing

They want regular and generous watering (brassicas in general like having wet leaves, so water freely).

Again: Keep firmly in mind that sprouts that have not been exposed to one or more pretty solid freezes are nearly tasteless. This is most definitely a late fall--or even winter--crop! Keep it going as long as you can--it might surprise you and continue bearing right through the winter, snows and all.

If any of the lower leaves of the plant show any yellowing, at once strip them off. (By the way: the younger, tender leaves can be cooked up much like collards or turnip greens, if that's your idea of a good time.)

Commercial gardeners remove all leaves to accelerate harvest, but that practice is not essential in the home garden. Some gardeners believe that the sprouts develop better if the lowermost six to eight leaves are removed from the sides of the stalk as the sprouts develop. Two or three additional leaves can be removed each week, but several of the largest, healthiest, fully expanded upper leaves should always be left intact on top to continue feeding the plant.

Another commercial practice is "topping"--pinching off the growing tip of the plant when the sprouts are present but immature. Some sources say that is not critical for home growers, but others swear that it is utterly essential for good production. September 1st is recommended for this practice, with harvest beginning perhaps 3 weeks after and continuing for as long as you can find more to pick, which might even be well into snow season. With our tricky sprouts season, topping is probably best done later; if we recon back 3 weeks from nominal harvest, we are looking at something like middle to late October--compromise and say mid-October.

Once plants begin to set sprouts, they can become a bit top-heavy and could be prone to wind damage (or even be blown over). Many suggest staking the plants or hilling up soil around the stems to support them; we, who get very high winds at times, have never had any problem with unstaked plants, but there it is.

As the sprouts come ready, harvest them from the bottom up, which is how they mature (the all-at-once harvesting of agribusiness is one reason store-bought samples taste so bad). Keep them picked--they'll grow more.


More

Relevant Links

Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful.


Odds and Ends

Biology

It is a brassica, a member of the Cruciferae, closely related to cabbages, and nearly as closely to broccoli and cauliflower.


History

Though sprouts were cultivated in Italy in Roman times, and in some form by possibly as early as the 1200s in Belgium. Brussels sprouts in the form that we are familiar with today were first cultivated in large quantities in Belgium (hence the name "Brussels" sprouts) starting somewhere around 1587.

Brussels sprouts were introduced into the U.S. in the 1800s. By the 1900s, they were being grown commercially in California.


Envoi

Brussels sprouts are the 23rd most-popular vegetable in New Zealand. On the other hand, they kill and eat sheep.





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