Brussels Sprouts…Sprouting Buds

The last of the Brussels sprouts have finally come out of the garden, and they held pretty well until the intermittent warm days we’ve had in the last couple of weeks. Then they started to really, well, sprout. The remaining loose sprouts are shooting up into mini flower stems.

Here’s the last good stalk, showing its interesting spring habit.

Brussels sprouts sprouting

I cut away the leaves along the sprouts, but left this one eruption for show-and-tell. If it sat in the garden much longer, all of the

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sprouts would look like this. In fact, here’s another plant that didn’t sprout-up properly, so I’m just letting it go to flower.
Brussels sprouting to flower

The main stalk of the plant bends left, and toward the bottom, a number of sprouts have opened up and shot out at a right angle. A few of the flower buds are about to open.

I could still be eating it at this stage. We often eat the Brussels sprouts leaves if the plant doesn’t produce sprouts but just gets very vegetative. They’re a quicker stir-fry and still have that tangy, smoky flavor unique to this cool-season crucifer, Brassica oleracea, Gemmifera group. You can also eat the flowers, which provide a light sprout flavor when tossed into the dish briefly at the end of cooking.

I’m often asked about planting Brussels sprouts, as it seems that many times they do not properly produce sprouts. I’ve certainly had my share of failures (see above). I think it’s a combination of timing, soil fertility and weather. Well, isn’t everything?

Timing

Open-pollinated (OP) Brussels sprouts range 120 to more than 200 days to harvest (from transplanting). That’s 4 to 6 months, plus a month if you grow them from seed, so you really need to plan ahead. There are F1 hybrids that have been bred to mature much faster, as quickly as 75 days or so. I like to grow the OP varieties and harvest in winter, because I like the way brassicas get sweeter after they’re hit by frost.

For such long-season plants, I always start them in flats and then plant them out into the garden. I’ve found that if I get the transplants into the ground by mid-June, I should have sprouts for the holiday feasts. If I don’t get them in until mid- to end of July, I’ll be eating them in February and March, and they may “bloom.”

It’s a good idea to grow two varieties with different maturity dates, or practice succession sowing, so you will have a longer harvest. (The F1 hybrids are also planted in May and June, for harvest in late summer.)

The seedlings will need 5-6 weeks to transplanting, so that means doing the first sowing in pots by May 1.

Fertilizing

I usually apply one feeding of liquid organic fertilizer to my starts, when they’ve gotten a few sets of leaves and are maybe 2-3 inches tall. When I plant them in the garden, I work in a spadeful of worm bin compost or a dusting of complete organic fertilizer (COF). Along with the N-P-K, they need the secondary nutrient sulfur and the trace mineral boron, both of which are present in organic fertilizer.

I do not fertilize much once the plants are in the ground. I am betting that, once the plants are established, the active soil food web will take over and deliver enough fertility throughout the root zone of my plants.

For overwintering plants like Brussels sprouts, they need to put on most of their growth by mid-fall, say by October 1, because the cooler soil and shorter days trigger much lower activity in the soil food web, and fertilizers will not be as available or taken up by the plants.

My final step in proper plant feeding is to get a soil test done every 2-3 years to see how I’m doing. If you’re growing crops in your vegetable beds year-round, you need to pay much more attention to soil fertility.

My favorite OP varieties: Roodnerf, Long Island Impoved and Rubine. Get them from Territorial Seed Co., Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds or Seed Savers Exchange.

And if you’re growing organically (and I hope you are), you also need to pay attention to potential diseases. Fungal problems like club root and bacterial diseases like black rot can affect brassicas, and the best defense is good garden sanitation and crop rotation.

Weather

The transplanted Brussels sprouts will be still young plants, just starting to get some size, by the time our warmest summer weather hits in August, so you might be tempted to plant them in partial shade. I advise against that. I’ve had best production from the plants in the most sunny spots. The challenge is keeping them well-watered during their crucial late-summer growing season.

They will benefit from a bed with lots of compost, and a top-dressing of mulch on the soil during that warmest time. That will help the soil retain water better, which means less stress on the plants. (Another stressor at that time of year is aphids, which love to swarm along the juicy stem and thick leaves. Douse the plants from overhead with a hard spray of water whenever you see aphids to keep them at bay.)

Fall and winter treatment

In the fall, a predictable cooling weather pattern provides the best situation for overwintering plants.

I apply a loose mulch of straw around the base of the plants in October, to keep the soil slightly warmer and prevent the roots from becoming exposed and desiccated by winter winds. If an unpredictable early freeze is forecast, I might throw a blanket of floating row cover over my brassicas to protect them a bit more.

Brussels sprouts nutrition

But by December, the plants should have acclimated to winter, and don’t need covering. In fact, covering can be detrimental, as it could provide a cozy spot for pests like slugs and snails to take up residence.

Once the plants have reached “full frame,” you can nip off the tip of the plant, so it will send more energy into sprout production. I often forget to do this, and still get sprouts. Often, too, my sprouts are smaller than the grocery-store ones, but sometimes sweeter. To harvest, twist each sprout off the plant, working from the ground up, or just cut off the entire stalk if you need a lot.

It’s a long haul to grow a vegetable like this, but these tasty bite-size cabbages are worth the effort, packing a couple of hearty meals on each plant. This year, why not give them another try?

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