Everyone loves Brussels sprouts! They please CSA members, chefs clamor for them, and we can never grow enough to meet the demand at the Farmers’ Markets. Wow, this is a farming dream! Sadly, there are problems. Most Brussels sprouts are extremely long season crops. That means there is a long time from planting to harvest. Many varieties take more than four months. This is a problem for southern growers because Brussels sprouts also don’t like hot weather. So, if you want a spring crop, you would have to plant at the first of February, in order for the crop to be ready by the first of June. In NC, February is too cold to be planting anything, if you want good results. Additionally, Brussels sprouts can be harvested for a month or more, if you handle them well. However, they can’t survive the summer heat in the south. This basically means spring crops are not possible, because you can’t plant them early enough to mature them before the hot summer. Fall crops are a problem because, in order to have a crop ready for Thanksgiving, you would need to plant in late July, when it is too hot. Then, by the first part of November, it gets so cold that growth slows and often only a quick small crop is possible before it freezes out. What should all of us Brussels sprout lovers do?
Pick the right varieties: When considering Brussels sprout seeds, I have two strategies. I either choose the shortest days-to-harvest variety, or else the longest with the best cold tolerance. For example, Churchill variety is ready in only 90 days. If it is planted in August, it will be ready three months later, which might make them available for Thanksgiving, if everything goes right. Another option is to find the most cold tolerant variety you can find and try to overwinter it. All Brussels sprouts are fine with a frost, however, some varieties of Brussels sprouts are better able to survive freezing weather than others. Diablo is a variety with pretty good cold tolerance. The goal with cold tolerant varieties is to nurse them along all winter, with the hopes that in early spring they will produce a crop. I have had better luck with buying shorter season varieties and hope for a fall harvest.
Buy transplants: Planting transplants instead of direct seeding can also help with a fall harvest of Brussels sprouts. Brussels sprouts take about 3-4 weeks from the time they are planted in trays, to the two leaf stage when they are ready for transplanting. This means they can be seeded in a greenhouse the first of August, and be ready for transplanting by the first of September, and hopefully ready for harvest by the beginning of November. I like this idea because planting can save money on the cost of seeds. Direct seeding uses much more seed than growing transplants, because you can’t be nearly as precise with seed placement when you are planting seeds in the field. You can also get really aggressive and see if your transplant producer can seed your transplants in July, so you can plant them in August. This means they will be ready by October! This is a little risky since Brussels sprouts don’t like heat. If you try this, you have to be ready to provide adequate water, as well as manage the barrage of summer pests. It also might be possible to build some shade covers for your new babies, to help with the summer heat, however, I have never tried it. Maybe next year!
Get some frost protection: Protecting the plants from hard freezes is an important part of growing Brussels sprouts. Although they can tolerate frost, many varieties can’t survive a hard freeze. It is so sad to nurse the crop along all through August, September, and October, only to have a hard freeze come in November and damage a crop that is almost ready to harvest. I use Agribon row covers. These are big rolls of white cloth that you can roll out over the crop to provide some frost protection. The problem you will find is that the plants are over knee high in November, and not so easy to cover. It will take some creativity. I have done it several ways. I have created hoops out of PVC pipe, that go over the crop and then covered it with Agribon. I have also gently laid it over the top of the crop, and secured the ends by laying bricks on it. Although this method isn’t perfect, it can work. The honest truth is that neither method is perfect. The hoops are expensive to build and a lot of trouble, but simply laying the cloth on top of the plants doesn’t provide as much protection. You just have to give it your best shot and pray. In any case, remember that frozen or frosted crops should never be touched at all. They are very fragile when frozen, and easily damaged. You must resist the urge to go out and check them until they are thawed out in the afternoon.
Growing Brussels sprouts in the south is not easy, but it is well worth it. There is high demand for them, which is not common with cool season grown crops. It provides the customer with something rare and yummy, and provides the grower with a much needed source of winter income. You can do it!
Eat Your Veggies,