How to grow Brussels Sprouts
Brussels Sprouts Growing Guide
Banish thoughts of soggy school-dinner sprouts – modern breeding has transformed this crop into a reliable performer producing a delicious vegetable. It is a bit of a project on the plot, because when you look at how long Brussels sprouts take to grow, it is usually around six or seven months from sowing to harvesting - but well worth it if you can afford the space. The Brussels sprout growing stages are fascinating to see - from tiny seedlings, to transplantable plants, right through to sturdy stems with the sprout buttons forming along them. Although they take a fair amount of time, Brussels sprouts are easy to grow, with some minor healthcare checks and basic maintenance throughout the season.
How to grow Brussels Sprouts
Many kitchen gardeners are put off growing Brussels sprouts by memories of the watery, off-grey veg placed on their plates in childhood. But cooked carefully – boiled for just a few minutes then finished off in a frying pan with a knob of butter and a generous grind of black pepper – you’ll discover they are a world apart. Home-grown sprouts can be picked and put into the pan within the hour to maximise their flavour.
Brussels sprouts are tough plants that crop throughout the winter months when times are lean. They are thought to have acquired their name due to the fact they were first grown commercially in Belgium, where they were a favourite winter vegetable. Having proved a hit, the hardy plant made its way across Europe and has become an established sight on many British plots. Our cool, maritime climate suits this vegetable well and by growing both an early and a late-cropping variety it is possible for the Brussels sprout growing season to offer rewards from September through until the following March. You will probably find yourself wondering, how long does it take for Brussels sprouts to grow - and it is true that they are a plant that will take their space on the plot for a while - but it is well worth it, with plants offering harvests in around seven months.
Where do Brussels sprouts grow?
As with other brassicas, such as cabbage and broccoli, Brussels sprouts need a firm soil that is not acidic. Most plots are well-suited to this requirement, and even those that are less than ideal can be treated to bring them up to scratch. Dramatic improvements over the past decade have seen a whole raft of carefully bred F1 hybrid cultivars enter the seed catalogues. These promise consistent results and an excellent flavour, even without the traditional exposure to frost that the older varieties need. All sprouts will work hard for their space, not only producing the traditional button-sized veg but also the added bonus of sprout tops – the cabbage-like head at the top of the plant which can be enjoyed in much the same way. Two harvests for the effort of one can’t be bad!
Brussels sprouts can grow in sun or partial shade, making this a useful crop for those slightly trickier parts of your plot. Always pick a fresh area of ground where you haven’t grown brassicas for at least two years; this simple requirement will help to reduce any nasty surprises coming from pest and disease build-up in the soil. If you are new to growing this veg, and what to know ‘how do Brussels sprouts grow’, the answer is that the sprout ‘buttons’ themselves form along an upright stem.
Diligent ground preparation is essential as sprouts need a firm, neutral to alkaline soil if they are to grow well. Pick a well-drained position and begin improving the growing area the autumn or winter before sowing. Dig the soil over and incorporate ample organic matter in the form of well-rotted manure or garden compost. All members of the brassica family are very heavy feeders and need lots of nitrogen to grow, so it’s hard to add too much of this. Dig the organic matter into the soil and leave it to settle over winter. Ideally, brassicas should follow on from an earlier crop of peas or beans, as these two crops are members of the legume family, which enrich the soil by taking nitrogen from the air and fixing it in their roots. This free source of nutrients can then be exploited by your hungry Brussels sprouts.
About a month before sowing, check the pH of your soil. If it is anything below 6.5 you will need to add lime to raise the pH so it is no longer acidic – aim for a pH of 7 or higher. Sprinkle the lime over the soil surface soil and allow rainfall to wash it down. Do not dig it in or you will fluff up the ground, which should have become nicely firm by now. Gardeners growing on clay will find that lime has the added advantage of causing the fine soil particles to group together, helping drainage to improve. If you have troublesome soil, it can be helpful to grow Brussels sprouts in a raised bed, as you have more control over the soil conditions.
Growing Brussels Sprouts month-by-month
The early season varieties will be drawing to an end this month and the late season types taking over. Remove yellow leaves as they appear.
Continue picking late cultivars, always starting at the base of the stem and working up. Remove old plants to the compost heap once they're finished.
Begin sowing early varieties of Brussels sprouts at the end of the month. Sow seeds 1cm deep in rows spaced 15cm apart, or use modular trays.
Complete sowing of late strains, which will give you a crop from January to as late as March. Keep the seedbeds and modules well-watered to encourage an even rate of germination.
Thin seedlings in open ground to 5-7cm apart as soon as they emerge. Transfer the young plants to their permanent growing position as soon as they reach 10-15cm tall.
Finish transplanting by early June. Thoroughly firm in each of the Brussels sprouts to give them the support that they will need as they grow.
Water in dry spells and keep the bed weed-free so your plants can grow away unfettered. Add supporting stakes in exposed sites.
Apply a late-summer feed of dried blood around each plant to give them a boost as they enter the sprout-formation stage.
Consider applying a mulch or bank up the soil against the base of stems to give the plants additional support as autumn approaches.
The early season sprouts will be ready to pick by now. Firmly snap or twist them individually from the stem to avoid harming the plant.
Begin preparing the soil for next year's Brussels sprout crop. Pick a new patch of ground and dig in plenty of organic matter to lift the nutrient content.
Continue preparing the ground for next year's crop as the weather allows. Do not work on excessively wet or frozen soil. Harvest sprouts as and when required, picking from the bottom to the top.
How to grow Brussels Sprouts from seed
Brussels sprouts are best started off in a seedbed and planted into their final ‘permanent’ plot once they have grown on a little. This enables a spring-time crop to be sneaked in before the sprouts take up their final positions plus the plants will develop a stronger root system when transplanted. To prepare your seedbed, begin by raking it over and pulling any stones or debris to the side to leave a level surface. To sow, draw drills into the soil using a garden cane. The drills should be about 1cm deep and spaced 15cm apart. Sow the seed very thinly to avoid overcrowding and undue waste. Cover the drills back over with soil and water along the rows using a watering can fitted with a rose.
If you are short on space - for example, if you only have a balcony garden - you may want to try growing Brussels sprouts in containers. You won’t get quite the harvests when you are growing Brussels sprouts in pots as you would growing in open ground, but you can always put a couple of plants in deep containers, provided they are offered enough growing matter.
The best time to complete your sowing is from late March to mid-April, depending on the temperature in your local area. If the soil is still cold and wet, leave sowing for another few weeks. There is little advantage to be gained from starting the plants off earlier, as they’ll need to be transplanted sooner when other crops may still be in the ground. Early sowings also increase the chance of sprouts appearing too soon in the season, when warm summer weather may cause them to unravel and lose their culinary appeal.
Caring for your Brussels Sprouts plants + problems
Seedlings should appear within about 10 days and from this point onwards your seedbed will need to be kept moist. Once they are 2cm high, thin them to a spacing of 5-7cm. When they reach 10-15cm tall, which will be about five to six weeks after sowing, it is time to transplant them to their permanent bed. Give this area a final boost just before transplanting time by sprinkling over a general purpose organic fertiliser, such as blood, fish and bone meal.
To transplant your young plants, thoroughly water them the day before and try to preserve as much of the seedbed soil around the root system of each one as possible to minimise disturbance. Push a hole into the new bed using a dibber and carefully re-plant them, pushing the soil back around the roots. They will need to be well firmed in, so either press down around each plant with your hands, or insert a dibber next to the plant and rock it back and forth to push the soil tightly up against the roots. Your seedling should offer enough resistance so that when you try to lift it out of the ground by a leaf, the leaf tears off before the plant is uprooted. Space plants 60-75cm apart in both directions, or 45cm apart if you are growing a more compact variety. Water the Brussels sprouts in to settle the soil around the roots and, if cabbage root fly has been a nuisance in the past, consider placing a brassica collar around each plant to stop the female flies accessing the base of the stems to lay their eggs. You might also be wondering ‘how tall do Brussels sprout plants grow?’ This varies from variety to variety, but will usually be around 2 feet (24 inches tall).
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How to harvest Brussels Sprouts
Depending on whether you are growing an early or late variety, your Brussels sprouts could be ready for harvesting from September to March. Begin picking your sprouts as soon as they reach about 2cm wide. At this point, the veg will still be tight and at their sweetest. The lowest sprouts on each stem will be ready first, with those further up maturing later on; this means that a few sprouts should be picked from each plant at a time, rather than stripping a single stem bare in one go. To remove individual sprout buttons without damaging the plant, firmly snap each one downwards.
As your Brussels sprouts mature, remove any yellowing leaves that appear, as these may act as a source of infection. Enjoy the veg fresh or freeze them by blanching them for a couple of minutes in boiling water, plunging them in cold water to stop the cooking process and drying them off before packing them into plastic containers for the freezer. Frost improves the flavour of traditional varieties, but this makes little difference to modern F1 hybrids. To encourage the final sprouts to ripen, remove the top of each plant, which can be enjoyed as a leafy green vegetable in the same way as cabbage. Spent plants are very woody so they should be cut up before they are added to the compost heap.
Varieties of Brussels Sprouts
Brussels Sprouts varieties to try
This is a popular variety of sprout, from which large, tasty sprouts are produced over a long period of the season.
These medium sized plants offer an early harvest, cropping over several months. They are ideal for more exposed sites which some varieties may struggle with.
If you are looking for something a little different, these purple coloured sprouts might be the ones for you! The plants are beautiful to look at, and the eventual spouts have a wonderfully nutty taste.
Stamp out a common Brussels sprout growing problem by giving this clubroot-resistant variety a try. The plant produces smooth, dark green buttons, and the plant itself holds up well to life on the plot.