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Growing Brussels SproutsBrussels sprouts have enjoyed a surge in popularity lately. Much of that is due to the fact we’ve realized how good they are for us. Those little miniature cabbages — they are actually quite different from cabbages even though they belong to the same family, the crucifers, as do kale, broccoli, and kohlrabi — are a gold mine of necessary nutrition.

Brussels sprouts contain a lot of cardiovascular disease fighting and cholesterol lowering fiber — 13% of a man’s daily requirement in a one cup serving (9% of a woman’s) — as well as lots of vitamins C and K for bone health, carotenoids for healthy vision, and a surprising amount of protein for a vegetable — 3 grams per serving. Another attraction: that single, one cup serving has only 38 calories. Here’s the complete nutrition rundown.

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But the thing that’s really made Brussels sprouts so attractive is their use in the kitchen. Brussels sprouts had gained something of a bad reputation for a couple reasons. The first was the quality of the sprouts sold at the market. Often harvested during the still-warm months, or shipped up from southern countries in the spring, they didn’t have the advantage of taking on some cold weather just as they were ready for harvest. Everyone knows that a light frost brings out a sweet flavor in any of the crucifers.

The other thing that can make sprouts unpalatable is over cooking. Leave those sprouts steaming away on the stove while you go off somewhere and they’ll develop an unpleasant, sulfurous taste. Nobody wants that. But roasting them quickly on the grill or in the oven makes them delectable. And separating the leaves and stir-frying them quickly in a little olive oil? Yummy?

We’ve written before about our early adventures growing Brussels sprouts. They can be a challenge to the unprepared. But a little knowledge — knowing what to expect when it comes to soil conditions and pest control — makes them easy and rewarding to grow. Here’s how — and most importantly when — to get them started.

When to start: When you start Brussels sprouts depends on where you live. You want them ready for harvest just as the first frosts begin to appear. This means starting them in most areas so they’ll be set out in late spring or early summer for fall harvest. If you live in a place with a short, cool growing season, now’s the time to start them indoors. In our experience, sprouts take a week or more to germinate and will grow slowly indoors. Even if you’re not going to set them out until the middle of May or later, an early indoor start will give you a jump. Most varieties take 100 days or more to maturity. If you’re setting them out in June in zone 4 or thereabouts, you’ll have spouts coming after the first frost.

If you live in a milder climate, you can direct sow in the garden during late fall for an early spring frost. We’ve been warned that sprouts grown here, say in frost-free coastal California or along the Gulf Coast, won’t be as tasty as those grown where they’ll be touched by frost. But we found that the fall-planted sprouts were delicious when harvested during the June gloom of coastal Southern California.

Setting out: If you have a cold frame, begin setting your plants out as early as a month before last frost. Sprout starts can get a bit leggy so make sure if you’re carrying you new plants outside that they are protected from the wind. Sprouts like a low pH range, something below 7.0 all the way down to 6.0, and they need adequate calcium and potassium to avoid leaf yellowing. Boron is another trace mineral that’s important to Brussels sprouts, as it is to all crucifers. Working some kelp meal into the soil will help give you the right balance of minerals. It’s important not to grow Brussels sprouts where they or any crucifers have been grown the season (or even two) before.

Soil conditions: Add plenty of compost in the fall to the area where you intend to plant sprouts. Turning in a bit more in the spring before planting is also a good idea. Brussels sprouts like rich, well-drained soil. They’re shallow rooters so side dressing your plants with compost a couple weeks after they’ve gone into the garden is a good idea. They like an even moisture level so water just ahead of the soil drying out. Foliar sprays are also a good idea while the plants are growing. Their use encourages growth and assures the plants will have the micronutrients they need.

Late season care: Stop adding compost or other soil amendments once sprouts start to appear. Fertilization during this time will result in loose, rather than tight heads, and may even cause cracking. Pick the spouts from the bottom up when they start to appear. Also clip the top of the plant to encourage good heading. As we’ve said, light frosts will only make your sprouts taste better. If heavy frosts and sustained cold weather are expected, cut your plants from the ground and hang in your garage or basement. The sprouts should last there for two or three weeks.

More information on growing beautiful Brussels sprouts? Go here (PDF).

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