They’re the butt of jokes, often sneered at, and avoided by children up and down the land. Yes, the humble Brussels sprout sure gets a hard time each Christmas. But you might change your mind if you learn how to grow your own sprouts.
Chefs have tried their best to give them a makeover, showing us how to serve them baked from the oven, frying the leaves with lardons or chestnuts, roasting them with garlic, or cooking them with grated beetroot and walnuts for crunch. One supermarket is serving them up with Marmite to revive this Christmas classic. But we still avoid them at all costs.
But gardeners who grow them will tell you that the flavour of a home-grown sprout is so much more intense than a shop-bought one, and an essential accompaniment to festive fare.
How to grow sprouts
So if you really want to save the humble sprout, it’s time to learn how to harvest your own – and with this advice, you’ll have home-grown sprouts on the table for next Christmas.
1. Prepare the soil
Work in plenty of compost in the autumn if you have poor soil and choose a sheltered and sunny spot for the crop. The ground mustn’t be acidic, so add lime if necessary in winter.
You need firm soil for sprouts, so dig it over in autumn, not immediately before planting.
2. When to sow
Sow indoors at 13-16C (55-60F) in February and March. Seeds for late varieties which will be ready for Christmas should be sown in April and planted out in June.
They need a lot of space, so plant them around 80cm apart. Don’t fork over the surface before planting the seedlings, which should be thinned to around 8cm apart and then transplanted when they are around 15cm high, watering the rows the day before moving to their permanent positions.
3. Keep the crop going
After watering in well, you’ll need to hoe regularly, water in dry weather so their growth isn’t stunted, and protect seedlings from birds.
Give your crop a top-up feed or a general-purpose organic fertiliser in August and water it in. In autumn, stake tall varieties and earth up around the stems.
4. Harvest time
Begin harvesting when the sprouts at the base of the stem have reached walnut-size and are still closed tightly. Snap them off or cut them with a sharp knife. The flavour is said to be improved if there’s been frost.
5. Which sprout, when?
For a crop which is going to be perfect for Christmas, choose a late variety such as ‘Topline’, ‘Braveheart’ or ‘Citadel’, all of which are modern F1 hybrids.
‘Trafalgar’ is said to be more child-friendly as it’s sweeter-tasting and produces heavy crops of tight buttons from December to March.
Sprouts are generally pretty easy to grow but they can suffer from being ‘blown’, when they open into small, flattened ‘blown’ rosettes, caused by being grown in loose soil or when shaken loose by strong winds. They can also suffer a check in growth if they are not watered enough in hot weather.