Hardy, robust and slow growing, Brussels are a classic winter vegetable, providing fresh, nutritious harvests in even the coldest weather. With modern varieties offering much improved flavour, this versatile veg has seen a revival in popularity and is now used in a wide range of dishes, not just the traditional festive feast.
Brussels form large, quirky-looking plants up to 1m (3ft) tall, with a leafy top and sturdy stem covered in small rounded green or purple sprouts. They are slow to mature, sown from early spring onwards and ready to harvest from autumn to late winter, depending on the variety and sowing time. While plants do take up quite a lot of space for a large part of the year, you don’t need many, as they should crop well, providing valuable fresh harvests across the winter months.
So why not try growing your own sprouts as a Christmas Day treat? Modern varieties have a mild, nutty, sweet flavour – far better than you may remember from childhood. Freshly picked sprouts are also full of health-boosting nutrients. Enjoy them lightly steamed, sautéed or stir-fried in all kinds of dishes.
Find out more with our fascinating facts about Brussels sprouts.
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There are more than 100 varieties of Brussels sprout to choose from, as well as a sprout/kale hybrid known as kalettes or flower sprouts. For consistently large crops of tasty, high-quality sprouts, it’s best to choose F1 hybrid varieties.
Sprouts have a reputation for being rather bitter-tasting, but most modern varieties have been bred for improved flavour and sweetness. Look in particular for varieties with an RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM), as these have been taste-tested by RHS experts and offer a mild flavour as well as a reliable crop. See our list of AGM fruit and veg for RHS-recommended varieties of Brussels and many other crops.
There are early, mid- and late-season varieties of Brussels, so if you have plenty of space you can grow a selection for harvesting from autumn through to late winter. Alternatively, you can concentrate on mid- to late-season varieties, for harvesting at Christmas and beyond, when other vegetables are in short supply. Each plant can produce a large crop over several months, so only a few plants are usually required.
Brussels are generally tall plants (around 90cm/3ft), but there are more compact varieties that are better for windy locations, smaller gardens and containers. They can vary in colour too, so if you want a change from traditional green, there are attractive purple varieties such as ‘Rubine’ and ‘Falstaff’. Some varieties also offer resistance to clubroot disease, while others are suitable for partial shade as well as full sun.
You can see many crops, including Brussels sprouts and other brassicas, growing in the veg plots at the RHS gardens, so do visit to explore how they are grown, compare the varieties and pick up useful tips and inspiration.
What and where to buy
Seeds of Brussels sprouts are widely available from garden centres and online gardening retailers. Young plants may also be available in spring and early summer from the same sources, but the choice of varieties will be more limited.
Preparing the Ground
Brussels sprouts like a sunny location with fertile, well-drained, firm soil. They form quite tall plants, so choose a sheltered spot, where they won’t be buffeted by strong winds. If your soil is very acidic, apply lime to raise the pH to at least 6.5.
Before sowing or planting, weed the ground thoroughly and dig in plenty of well-rotted manure or garden compost – about two buckets per square metre/yard. If you can do this the autumn before planting, this will allow plenty of time for the ground to settle. If not, be sure to firm the soil well. Then rake in a high potassium general fertiliser, such as Vitax Q4, at a rate of three handfuls per square metre/yard.
Brussels need a long growing season, so start them off early, either indoors or outside under cloches. Sow early, mid-season and late cultivars to provide harvests over the longest period.
Brussels sprouts are brassicas, so should be grown with other cabbage relatives in crop rotations, to avoid the build-up of pests and diseases in the soil.
For an early crop, sow from February to April in modular trays in a greenhouse or coldframe.
Move the young plants outside after the last frost, once they’re at least 10cm (4in) tall, into their final growing position – see Transplanting below.
Sow seeds from early March to May, into prepared ground (see above), under cloches or fleece if the weather is still cold.
Brussels are traditionally sown in a separate ‘seedbed’, rather than in the main veg plot, then transplanted in early summer, once more space becomes available. This is because these plants are slow to grow and would take up a lot of room during the prime spring season. However, you may prefer to sow straight into the final growing site, to avoid transplanting.
If sowing in a seedbed, sow the seeds thinly, 1–2cm (½in) deep, in rows 15cm (6in) apart. Thin out the seedlings to 7.5cm (3in) apart once they’re large enough to handle, removing the weaker ones.
If sowing in their final position, either sow as above or, to avoid transplanting, sow several seeds every 60cm, then thin out the resulting clusters to leave just the strongest seedling at each point.
If club root has been a problem recently, sow in large containers of multi-purpose compost, choosing shorter varieties. Protect seedlings from slugs and snails.
Young plants should be either transplanted to their final site in early summer or thinned out further to 60cm (2ft) apart, moving the spare plants to form new rows – see Transplanting, below. Space rows 75cm (30in) apart.
Also see our tips on getting veg crops off to a good start.
Water the young plants well the day before moving
Prepare your site as detailed above (see Preparing the ground). Be sure to firm the soil well, as they will grow into tall top-heavy plants that need to be well anchored in the ground, to stand up to winter gales
Lift the young plants carefully, trying not to disturb the roots, then set them in their new planting hole more deeply than before, with their lowest leaves at the soil surface, to ensure they root deeply. Firm them in well
Space plants 60cm (2ft) apart, with 75cm (30in) between rows. This wide spacing is crucial, to give plants plenty of light and air, which helps them to crop successfully and deters fungal diseases, so don’t be tempted to plant more closely
Water the young plants in well, then continue watering regularly, not letting the soil dry out, until they are growing strongly
Plants grown from seed indoors, and newly bought young plants, should be planted out using this method in early summer, after hardening off.
Protect plants from slugs and snails, and place a felt cabbage collar around the base of the stem to deter cabbage root fly.
Brussels sprouts need protection from pests such as cabbage butterflies and pigeons, so are best covered with fine-mesh netting. Water whenever the soil starts to dry out and support taller plants with canes. Feed in summer to boost growth and remove any fading leaves to keep good airflow around the plants.
Water seedlings and young plants regularly, never letting the soil dry out. Once they’re well established and growing strongly, just water in dry weather, repeating every 10 to 14 days if there is no rain.
Apply a thick layer of mulch, such as well-rotted manure or garden compost, around the plants to help hold moisture in the soil and deter weeds.
In July, apply a top-dressing of nitrogen-rich fertiliser, such as dried poultry manure pellets (at a rate of 150g/5oz per square metre/yard).
Keep seedlings and young plants weed-free, to reduce competition for light, water and nutrients. See our tips on controlling weeds.
In late summer, mound up soil around the base of the stems, to provide extra support before autumn gales arrive. Taller plants may also need staking with a sturdy bamboo cane, especially in exposed sites. This will prevent winds buffeting these top-heavy plants, which can loosen the roots and hinder growth, or even blowing them over.
Start picking the lowest sprouts first, when they’re the size of a walnut, firm and still tightly closed. Snap them off with a sharp downward tug, taking a few from each plant along the row. Remove the lower leaves at the same time. Check plants regularly and pick the sprouts gradually as more form. With newer varieties, the sprouts tend to mature more uniformly, so you can harvest the whole stem if preferred.
There is usually no need to harvest all the sprouts at once though – especially in cold weather, you can leave the plants standing and simply pick however many sprouts you need. Some varieties have better ‘standing ability’ than others. Just be sure to check plants often and harvest before the sprouts start to open or turn yellow.
Once cropping is over, the mild-flavoured young leaves, or sprout tops, can be harvested too, and cooked like spring greens.
Sprouts are particularly rich in vitamins, antioxidants and fibre. They can be cooked in many ways, including roasting, sautéing and stir-frying. Take care not to overcook them.
Sprouts are best eaten fresh, but can be stored in a plastic bag in the fridge for several days. Alternatively, whole stems can be harvested – either stand them in water for a few days or hang them up in a cool, frost-free garage or shed, then pick the sprouts as needed.
Brussels sprouts are generally hardy, robust plants, but sometimes growth or cropping can be poorer than expected – see our guide to Brussels sprouts problems for advice.
Being brassicas, Brussels can suffer from several pests and diseases that affect the cabbage family, including clubroot and cabbage root fly. They are also best grown under fine-mesh netting to protect them from cabbage caterpillars and pigeons. Cabbage whitefly and aphids can also be problematic.
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