Brussels sprouts are a healthy vegetable. They are a great source of vitamin K, vitamin C, folate, and dietary fiber. However, their flavor reputation is notoriously bad. Brussels sprouts often find their way onto “most hated vegetable” lists. A veggie rarely eaten and often derided only a decade or two ago has now found its way onto trendy restaurant menus as a signature side or a featured appetizer. It turns out we were cooking them all wrong. Boiled-to-death Brussels sprouts slathered with processed cheese (yuck!) of my youth have given way to roasted, braised, and grilled dishes, some bacon wrapped or with a balsamic glaze (yum!). Brussels sprouts are now one of my family’s favorite dishes! So naturally, I wanted to try my hand at growing them.
Brussels sprouts are rarely grown in the South, and there isn’t much regional growing information available to gardeners. Because they are cool-season brassicas related to crops that do very well here, like collards and broccoli, it’s somewhat surprising more people don’t grow them. But it turns out that they have some peculiarities. Most importantly, they grow best at cooler temperatures, 65 to 80 °F . Secondly, they are slow-growing vegetables. Another odd feature is that the edible parts are the swollen axillary buds. These are the leaf buds found up and down the stem. To maximize yield, long stalks, 2 to 3 feet tall, are preferred, which means we want as much stem growth as possible before the buds begin to swell into “mini-cabbages.” Combine all those traits, and late summer through fall is the best growing season for us in the South.
To maximize stem growth, set out Brussels sprouts as transplants during the ideal planting dates for your region, August 15 to September 15 in the Upstate and September 15 to October 15 in the Coastal Plain. Unfortunately, Brussels sprout transplants can be hard to find in garden centers. Remedy that by starting your own seeds in early July. Order Brussels sprouts seeds online in time to seed them 5 to 7 weeks before the garden planting date. Once the transplants are 2 to 4 inches tall, set them out like any other brassica transplant. Keep them well-watered during the hot days of August and September. A layer of mulch will retain soil moisture, cool the soil, and help prevent weeds. Keep an eye out for insect pests, the same ones that plague other cole crops.
Your plants will begin to produce sprouts in late Fall. Their flavor improves after a frost or two. Remove the lowest leaves as the sprouts develop from the bottom up. This hastens sprout development. Begin harvesting when the bottom sprouts are 1 to 1 ½ inches in diameter. They should be compact, hard, and deep green. A simple twist of a sprout should separate it easily from the stalk. Continue harvesting up the stem as new sprouts develop.
Fortunately, Brussels sprouts are very cold hardy and withstand freezes down to 20 °F with no damage at all. As a result, they can produce all winter most years in SC. While they are challenging to grow, harvesting fresh, nutritious Brussels sprouts on a cold winter’s day is worth the effort!