The hardiest of the cabbage family crops
Brussels sprout plants take up a fair amount of space, but the reward is a bountiful harvest of tasty sprouts. The sprouts, which look like mini cabbages, form along the 2- to 3-foot stems under umbrella-like foliage, and need up to 100 days to mature.
Brussels sprouts are the hardiest cabbage-family crop — they survive freezing temperatures better than hot spells. Fall frosts actually bring out the sprouts’ sweetness so time your plantings accordingly.
Gardeners need to be careful not to expose their sprouts to too much heat at the beginning or end of the plant’s life cycle. Northern gardeners have best results starting with transplants, set out in early summer so the plants are not too mature during the hottest weeks. Plant this crop after you’ve set out warm-season crops like peppers and squash. You can even plant Brussels sprouts in the same place as early crops like spinach or peas.
Set transplants deeper than they grew originally, with the lowest leaves just above the soil. Firm the ground around the plants, and water well.
Prepare your soil well and mulch to retain soil moisture. Hand pull any weeds to avoid damaging the shallow roots of the sprout plants. Feed once or twice a month. Stake in areas with strong winds. The leaves will turn yellow as sprouts mature; remove these leaves as they fade to give sprouts room to develop.
Small sprouts (about 1-inch diameter) are the most tender. Harvest them as they mature from the bottom of the stalk upward. Remove sprouts by twisting them from the stem. Pinching off the plant tops forces sprouts to mature faster.
A star of the fall and winter garden, cold-hardy Brussels sprouts can be enjoyed all winter long; the colder the weather, the better they taste. The trick to cooking Brussels sprouts is not overcooking them. Most people who say they don’t like Brussels sprouts have eaten industrially grown, bitter versions with all the flavor and color cooked out of them. A properly cooked sprout should be fork-tender but not mushy, and should retain most of its green color.
Like broccoli, Brussels sprouts should be planted 18 to 24 inches apart. They will also benefit from a generous layer of mulch which will help keep the roots comfortably moist and cool during the dog days of summer.
Get Ready to Harvest
After about 50 days, you will notice small round sprouts emerging where each leaf joins the stalk, first at the bottom of the plant’s “trunk” and moving upwards over time. You can begin harvesting them as soon as the sprouts reach the size of a marble, but the most flavorful harvests are left for later in the season after the first frost has come and infused your sprouts with a natural sweetness that most commercially grown versions will never know.
If you want to speed up or increase the size of your sprouts, you can “top off” your plant roughly 4-6 weeks before you expect your first hard freeze. To do this, use a sharp knife or scissors to remove the growing peak of the plant. This helps channel all the plant’s energy into maturing the remaining sprouts.
Although Brussels sprouts don’t grow much after the first freeze, they tolerate frosts well, so don’t worry when the thermometer dips into the low 20s. The sweetest sprouts are often harvested in the snow. Once temperatures start to plummet below 20, you’ll want to protect them or bring whatever sprouts you have left inside, stalk and all. To do this, cut the stalk at its base with a hand saw, strip the leaves, and store it in a cool, dark area; the attached sprouts should hold up well for several weeks. Fresh, unwashed sprouts will keep in the refrigerator for about a week, and longer if you keep them on the stalk.
Brussels sprouts can be harvested from home gardens long after all the other vegetables have given up.