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Ignore the bad reputation — why you should grow Brussels sprouts, and how to start

Brussels sprouts are hardy, slow-growing, long-season vegetables belonging to the cabbage family.
Brussels sprouts are hardy, slow-growing, long-season vegetables belonging to the cabbage family. Associated Press, file

My cousin Sally Mead and her husband, Steve, dropped their daughter Emma off for her freshman year at Penn State this past weekend and stopped by to visit on their way back home. We were enjoying sitting on the deck and Steve was telling me about his dad’s Brussels sprouts — the sprouts on the bottom of the stalk were larger than the ones on the top of the stalk, was there anything he could do to even out the size of the sprouts? It got me thinking about Brussels sprouts, which are often overlooked in planning a garden but are very delicious and nutritious.

Brussels sprouts are hardy, slow-growing, long-season vegetables belonging to the cabbage family. The “sprouts” that resemble miniature cabbages are produced in the leaf axils, starting at the base of the stem and working upward. Sprouts improve in quality and grow best during cool or even lightly frosty weather. Brussels sprouts require a long growing period, though newer hybrids such as Bubbles, Jade Cross, Jade Cross E, Oliver, Prince Marvel, Royal Marvel and Valiant have all proved successful and have greatly reduced this time requirement.

It takes about 4 to 5 weeks to grow a good transplant that is 3 to 4 inches high and can be set out in the garden in early to mid-summer, but at least 90 to 100 days before the date of first frost. Space plants 24 to 36 inches apart in the row, or 24 inches in all directions in beds.

Brussels sprouts are grown much like the related cole crops, cabbage and broccoli. Apply one side-dress application of nitrogen fertilizer when the plants are 12 inches tall and it is extremely important to keep the crop growing vigorously during the heat of summer by providing enough soil moisture or else the crop will fail. Insect control is also very important at this stage to keep the plants growing vigorously. Cultivate shallowly around the plants to prevent root damage.

Some 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. You also can cut off the top growing point when the plant reaches 24 to 36 inches in height. This practice stops leaf growth and directs the plant’s energy to the developing sprouts. The small sprouts or buds form heads one to two inches in diameter. They may be picked (or cut) off the stem when they are firm and about one inch in size. The lower sprouts mature first. The lowermost leaves, if they have not been removed already, should be removed when the sprouts are harvested. Harvest sprouts before the leaves yellow.

Unlike most green vegetables, Brussels sprouts are rather high in protein. Although the protein is incomplete — lacking the full spectrum of essential amino acids — a serving of whole grains will make them complete. As a member of the cabbage family, Brussels sprouts are a cruciferous vegetable and research suggests vegetables in this group offer protection against some forms of cancer.

A common problem experienced with the sprouts is that they remain loose tufts of leaves instead of developing into firm heads. When the sprouts develop in hot weather (after spring seeding or during a warm fall), they often do not form compact heads.

The fresher the sprouts, the better the flavor, so refrigerator storage should not exceed a day or two. Remove any damaged or irregular outer leaves and store fresh unwashed sprouts in plastic bags in the vegetable bin of the refrigerator.

I think that many gardeners/consumers who do not like Brussels sprouts are haunted by childhood memories of smelly, army green, bitter, mushy globs that had to be eaten before dessert. Fresh Brussels sprouts, properly cooked, are deliciously delicate in flavor. Maybe it is time to give Brussels sprouts another chance, this time with a new attitude and a modern cooking spirit.

Bill Lamont is a professor emeritus in the department of plant science at Penn State and can be reached by email at wlamont@psu.edu.
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