Produce Profile: Bring Back Brussels Sprouts

This long-season crop is a staple in European gardens, has been misunderstood for a generation in America, and is now redeeming itself as a valuable vegetable.

by Lisa Munniksma
PHOTO: Frauke Feind/Pixabay

I was in my 30s before I knew Brussels sprouts grew on stalks and could be cooked in a manner that didn’t render them slimy balls of mush. While I’m still a newbie at growing, I’m delighted to have quickly picked up on cooking and eating them.

The crop has only been commercially grown in the U.S. for about 100 years, according to FoodPrint, and it’s taken some time for us to figure out what do with them.

I think their moment is arriving.

How to Grow Brussels Sprouts

Brussels sprouts are a crop to teach patience. You’re looking at up to 180 days between putting the seed in soil and your first harvest.

Their reward is a homegrown vegetable to grace winter tables or to harvest in early spring, before much else is green.

There is some debate as to whether Brussels sprouts originated in Brussels, Belgium, or in Rome. In both places, winters are cold but generally not freezing; summers are on the cooler side. This pretty well describes Brussels sprouts’ growing preferences.

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Plants do well in cool weather—they’re hardy into the low 20s—and should be harvested in cool weather.

You might start them indoors in mid-summer to harvest in early spring. Or you might start them indoors in early spring to harvest around the fall and winter holidays.

Growing through the winter means less of the insect and disease issues that all brassicas face but brings the risk of too-cold weather damaging plants.

When plants are several inches tall, transplant into the garden in full sun, 18 inches apart. Keep them covered with a lightweight row cover to ward off pests until the plants are strong enough to handle them, or use the row cover to buffer cold temps.

Consistent watering makes the tightest, best-tasting tiny cabbage-like Brussels sprouts heads.

Mulch will help retain soil moisture, cut down on weed pressure and keep the soil cool, all of which Brussels sprouts like.

Read more: From providing frost protection to helping with pests, row cover can be a grower’s best friend.

How to Harvest

Brussels sprouts’ leaves resemble collard greens, and they taste alike, too. The leaves are bonus to the Brussels sprouts themselves.

Some growers say to remove the leaves as the plant grows so the plant’s energy will go into the heads instead, though I’ve found the heads are subject to sun scald without the leaves to provide some shade.

You might experiment to see what works in your garden.

The Brussels sprouts you see in the grocery store tend to be huge—2 inches in diameter or more—though it’s likely that not all of yours will not reach that size. Depending on your level of patience and pest pressure, you might start harvesting when they first form tight heads, or allow them to continue growing.

Brussels sprouts heads mature starting at the bottom of the stalk. If you’re growing them for home use, you can harvest as needed, a few sprouts at a time.

If you’re growing for a market, a whole stalk full of sprouts makes a statement on your farmers market table (and is less effort than harvesting sprout by sprout).

When the sprouts at the bottom look the right size for harvest, cut off the top inch of the stalk. This will prevent the plant from growing taller. Instead, the rest of the Brussels sprouts on the stalk will size up faster.

Read more: Here are 6 crops you can grow and sell during the cold months.

How to Eat Brussels Sprouts

Just before eating, peel off the outer layer of leaves and cut the very bottom off of the stem. This is a little labor intensive but no more so than snapping beans.

Brussels sprouts are best eaten any way other than boiled to death, which is how my grandmother would make them. Why anyone thought that was the best these delightful vegetables could do is beyond me.

Roast them! Whole or halved, tossed with olive oil and garlic—and chestnuts, if you can find them—roasted Brussels sprouts are one of my favorite vegetable dishes. Chop roasted Brussels sprouts and toss them with chopped apples, quinoa, feta and lemon juice for a delicious to-go lunch.

Sauté them with bacon and onions. Add potatoes and a fried egg to for a breakfast dish!

Eat them raw by thinly slicing and making into a slaw or salad.

If the mushy sprouts experience of your youth made you turn up your nose at the very idea of this article, I urge you to give them another try! They’ll build your patience in the garden and your adventurousness in the kitchen.

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