Everything you need to know about Brussels sprouts

Nick Moyle and Rich Hood

Whether you think they're rotten or glorious, here's everything you need to know about those little green balls...

Brussels Sprouts are a controversial Christmas dinner staple: some folk can’t get enough green bullets, while for others even one is a challenge greater than chomping through Christmas pudding on a full stomach. Here are ten facts to help you grow and enjoy this most festive Christmas veg.

 

Why the name?

Brussels sprouts originate from the Mediterranean vegetable and there are various dates mentioned as to when they first became popular in Northern Europe. 

Claims to their cultivation lie anywhere between the 13th and 18th century with an area near Brussels usually cited, which is the likely source of their name.

 

What is a Brussels sprout?

Brussels sprouts are members of the brassica family that also includes cabbage. 

The plant is biennial and the sprouts themselves are actually its buds, growing in the angle of the leaves.

 

Varieties

Although we consider sprouts to be a green veg you can also find purple varieties, such as Red Ball. 

Among the most popular green leafed plants with growers are Crispus, Maximus and Brodie.

 

Sowing 

Brussels sprouts like a long growing season so it’s best to get sowing in March or early April, starting them off under the warmth of fleece, a cloche or cold frame. 

If you’re hoping for a pre-Christmas harvest, then you can sow an early variety in pots under glass throughout February. 

 

Planting out

From mid-May to June your seedlings should be of a good enough size to plant out—experts tend to suggest they should have seven leaves when they’re ready although we’ve never counted before transplanting. 

They like a sheltered, sunny spot and soil that has been enriched with compost. It’s important to firm them into the soil well and give them plenty of room to grow.

 

Problems

As with all brassicas your sprouts are likely to come under attack from pigeons so growing them under netting, particularly when young, is advised. And unfortunately, potential problems don’t stop at the pigeons’ beaks—cabbage root fly, caterpillars (especially the cabbage white) and club root are also things to look out for. 

 

Harvesting

Early sprout varieties can be harvested from August while later varieties can withstand frost and keep on going through to February. In fact, a frost will help to produce sugars in your sprouts, making them even tastier. 

Only harvest or buy sprouts when their leaves are tightly packed together as any that show signs of blooming will be a much more bitter prospect.

 

Stalks for freshness

If you can, buy sprouts that are still attached to the stalk and cut them off just prior to cooking. 

This will enable you to store them for a little longer and they’ll be much fresher and tastier when cooked.

 

Cabbage bonus

At the top of your stalk you’ll have a larger bunch of leaves. This is the “cabbage” part of the plant and is also perfectly edible, so make sure you harvest that too for a bonus brassica treat.

 

Hold your nose

Sprouts have been known to cause windy side effects that can kick up a stink at the Christmas table. 

This is because they contain a small amount of Sulphur and a sugar known as “Raffinose” which is hard for humans to break down—it’s this chemical combination that causes the unfortunate gassy emissions.