Posts Tagged ‘stinging nettles’

My Life With Invasives

I’m reading Beyond the War on Invasive Species, an interesting book by Tao Orion that, among other things, recalls some of the horrors that the native plant ecomovement fell into, such as “nuking” large areas repeatedly with Round-Up so that they could eventually be replanted with “pure” native species. The whole issue of how to think about invasives is complicated, and I will not approach it here. But the role of invasives in my own yard is one that I feel able to tackle.  My yard is happily multicultural and can absorb almost any invasive that has a use to me, my livestock, or our local pollinators. Over the years I’ve been surprised by plants that came with warnings about their aggressive nature, but in my yard struggled or even died.

There are lots of invasives here, mostly introduced by me and mostly cherished. To have dandelions, I had to pay good money for seed and then wait impatiently as they took three years to get large and lush and edible. Now they are finally self-seeding a bit and are welcome almost anywhere they appear.

Gojis took a while to settle in but now come up everywhere, which is fine since I like the leaves and young shoots as well as the berries.

Nettles, shown at the top of this post,  are my favorite spring greens, and it has turned out to be very possible to manage them for a fall crop of greens as well. They aren’t found in my high desert area and I had to buy plants to get them. They are probably my favorite invasive.  The first nettle patch was located in an area that has concrete walkway all around it, to foil its dreams of world domination. I have started a couple of other nettle patches this spring in large containers. I’ll report back on how this works out.

Arugula  comes up everywhere, and is welcome almost everywhere it appears. It is one of my favorite salad greens, and makes a fairly good cooked green as well, best with stronger seasonings like garlic and cayenne. The flowers are very attractive to bees  and open at a time when little else is flowering, so I always let plenty of it go to seed.

At this point I would have to classify elephant garlic as an invasive, because no matter how much of it I pull up, I always seem to have even more the following year.  When I threw an arm full on top of straw mulch just to get rid of it, it sent roots down  through the mulch and took off as you see above. I don’t mind it, though. It isn’t much use as a bulb and does not compare to true garlic, but I like the early shoots for green garlic, so it does have a use, and the bees enjoy any flowers that I allow to form.

Speaking of attractive to bees, cardoon has become quite an invasive in my yard but one that, as you see above, has its admirers.  I loved cardoons when I ate them in Italy, and brought back seeds from there to make sure that I got the edible kind and not the florist kind, but I have never been able to eat my homegrown cardoons. No matter how carefully blanched, they are inedibly bitter. They do provide one wonderful vegetable, the peeled top of the bloom scape before the buds swell, but that is one small serving per very large plant. I still let them seed themselves around though, because the bees and my goat adore them and even in my desert climate and alkaline soil, they come up in odd corners and require no care or attention whatsoever. The huge jagged silver leaves are strikingly ornamental.  When they come up in the middle of garden beds, I let them reach a good size and then pull them for the goat. I have read that the large parsnip-like root is edible, but when grown in my yard it is as bitter as the leaves, and is a flavor that only a goat could love.

Scrawny little Phyllostachys dulcis “invading.”

I love bamboo shoots and can seldom  find fresh ones locally, so growing them seemed obvious.  I planted  clumping bamboo and the famously invasive running sweet shoot bamboo.  The latter is famous for overrunning its boundaries and forming 30 foot high jungles, so I sited it in a part of the yard up next to the goat paddock, figuring that I could always turn her loose on it if worst came to worst.  Three years later, each plant now has two or three wimpy looking canes about 5 feet high, and I have eaten exactly one bamboo shoot. It was very good, and I was glad to have it,  but I am still waiting for the abundant shoots that I was told would pop up absolutely everywhere.  The aristocratic clumping bamboos took one look at their pedestrian setting and refused to go on living.

Burdock bloomscape at right stage for peeling and cooking.

Burdock has done a better job of becoming an invasive. I don’t care for the roots that much, and planted it because the peeled bloom scape is a fair vegetable, and I assumed that since I was eating it before the flowers formed, I would be able to keep the plant from reproducing. It fooled me. If you keep cutting off the bloomscape, it forms little short bloomscapes down under the huge leaves where you don’t see them, and seeds itself thickly all around the parent plant.  Dogs wandering through the patch pick up the burrs and plant more elsewhere.  Still, the leaves are a favorite goat treat, and I don’t mind having it around.

Common milkweed is one of my favorite wild edibles, as well as being a great bee plant and the chosen food of the monarch butterfly larva, and for years I have been trying to get it to become invasive, but in my yard it remains as fussy as orchids.  Ordinarily I run a Darwinian garden and will not make great efforts to keep any plant going when its natural inclination is to die, but I have really gone out of my way for the milkweed, and it has not reciprocated. Finally, this year it is beginning to spread a little bit, but there is still not enough to eat any.

Silver nightshade is the only invasive plant in my area that I truly despise and can find no use for, which is a shame because it’s everywhere. If you think it looks pretty, you haven’t gotten to know it. The roots lie several feet underground and are invulnerable. The plant comes up everywhere, and is covered with small prickles that are not only painful but break off in your skin with any touch and cause irritations that last days. The leaves are poisonous to livestock. There is no argument to be made for its existence except that, unfortunately, it does exist.  It does not seem possible to have less of it. I blush to admit that once, many years ago, I was so infuriated by it that I tried spraying some with Round-up, and I must say that it shriveled up over the next several days in a very satisfying way. Unfortunately, within a few weeks it had rebounded and was growing up happily and thickly from the roots, seeming invigorated by the experience.  So do not bother sacrificing your organic credibility, because it won’t work anyway.  Every now and then I run its scientific name through the medical databases, hoping that somebody somewhere will have found a chemical in it that treats a rare cancer or something like that, so that I will feel differently about its general uselessness. But so far, it remains one of nature’s blights. It seems to be highly aggressive in dry soils and doesn’t compete well in damp areas, so maybe as humus and moisture increase in my soil, it will be less of a problem.

Read the book if you are really interested in a different way of thinking about invasives.

The First Nettles of Spring

This year we ate all winter from the broccoli and greens growing under frost blankets. Even so, it remains a major spring event when the first nettles are ready to pick. They taste so good and give such an all-over glow of virtue.  There are people who think that nettles have special medicinal benefits. My own belief is that all dark leafy greens have medicinal benefits, and the important thing is to eat as wide a variety of them as possible. But that first meal from the uncovered soil does confer a special feeling that spring is finally and truly here.

If you aren’t familiar with them, consult a good wild-food field guide, and be aware that the sting is quite uncomfortable and can last hours. Have leather gloves handy for picking. They’re ready to harvest when 6-8” tall. I cut off the top 2” or so, including as much leaf and as little stem as possible.

I turn them into a big bowl of water and stir gently with a wooden spoon for 2-3 minutes to get dirt off.

My favorite tool for lifting them out of the water, leaving any dirt that was present at the bottom of the bowl, is a pair of “salad hands” that somebody once gave me as a hostess gift. A large slotted spoon would work too. I make sure to throw the water on a garden bed. We live in the desert, after all.

Cooking nettles is a breeze, but in my opinion chopping is a necessary step, to eliminate stringy stems. First I put them in the pan with about half a cup of water, and cook over high heat, stirring, for about two minutes or until thoroughly wilted. The water should be pretty much gone. Turn out on a cutting board, let cool for five minutes or so, and chop. The cooking has eliminated their capacity to sting, and you can handle them with impunity now.

The flavor of nettles is rather like spinach, but deeper and richer, with a slight feral twist. I especially like them creamed, and always eat the first ones this way. Slice up two big fat green onions, sauté them in butter until cooked, add chopped nettles, sauté another minute or so, add heavy cream just to cover, boil for a couple of minutes until the cream is thickened, and salt to taste. Serve with freshly ground pepper and nothing else, so that you can taste the true flavor of the nettles.  You can also use netales in absolutely any way that you would use cooked spinach. They are infinitely versatile, and I have never served them to anyone who disliked them.  After the initial cooking and chopping, they can be frozen for later years. Whenever I wash and cook nettles, I try to make about twice as much as I need for immediate use, so that I can freeze the other half.

They can be dried for tea, although I do not care for the watery tasting tea that results and don’t bother.  Adding a twist of orange peel or something similar would give more flavor. I am not much of a tea drinker, but if you are, this might be worth considering.

If, like me, you live in an area who are nettles don’t grow naturally, there are some considerations to growing them in your yard.  First is obtaining them. When I first started growing them in central New Mexico about 12 years ago, I could not get seeds to germinate and no herb nurseries offered them. I finally called an herb nursery from whom I was buying other things and asked if they could please find me some nettles.  The “plants” I received had clearly just been dug from the nearest roadside, and were little more than cut rhizomes in potting soil, but they grew just fine.  These days they are easier to find and a number of mail order nurseries have them.

Siting  must be done carefully, because of the sting and because they are invasive.  I have mine in an area surrounded by concrete, where they cannot escape to parts of the yard where I don’t want them.  My large dogs are readily able to avoid them, but I have heard that they could do real harm to very small dogs, so keep this in mind.   Growing them in areas where small children could get into them is an obvious no-no. They get tall and gangly and flop around, but if cut or mown back in summer, they stay neater and make a second crop in fall.  I hope that I am never without nettles in spring.

 

 

The Fall Summation IV: Perennials

I am beginning to plan for those future years  when digging in the garden is not such a pleasure. For that matter, there are already days when digging feels less like a hobby, pleasure, and form of worship and more like a chore, and so I am trying to have patches of perennials around that would carry me through a time when I did not feel able to dig.  I am also trying to create deep mulched beds that would make it possible to grow annuals with less work, but more about that in another post.

Some of the perennials that I have experimented with:

Stinging nettles are a real success. They have to be sited in a place where people and animals do not have to be exposed to them and get stung, but once established the only care they need is some water in my desert area, and cutting back in the winter so that the spring greens can be easily harvested. From now on, I will also cut back the withered stalks at the peak of late summer heat, so that when new shoots come up in the fall they can be gathered without much trouble.  They are delicious when cooked, and there is no more nutritious green, so I am even thinking of starting a second patch in another out-of-the-way corner of the yard. I have written about their kitchen uses in a number of past posts,  and I guess all I will say here about their flavor is that it is mild but somehow more intensely green than almost anything else that I’ve tasted.  They have to be handled cautiously and with gloves to avoid stings, but I have read with fascination that some people believe in putting the raw greens into smoothies, and apparently they are edible raw in that form. There are also contests in some places in Europe in which raw nettles are eaten in large quantities. Bizarre, but then, people are. Suit yourself.

Scorzonera  is a favorite of mine for its delicious stalks topped with tightly packed flower buds, and I have also learned to appreciate the leaves as a substantial but mild flavored addition to salads. It produces a small but useful second crop of leaves in late fall.   It tolerates drought  exceptionally well once established. I will be planting a lot more of this one. Be aware that I am talking about Scorzonera hispanica. There are other members of genus Scorzonera that have thready and insubstantial leaves. I don’t find the root to be worth the trouble of digging it up, and I leave it in the ground to make more leaves and stalks year after year with no labor on my part.

Salsify  produces long thin leaves which, in the spring, are tender and reasonably tasty.  The buds are probably the best part of the plant, although they are tiny and you would need a fair sized patch to have enough to be worth eating.  I have planted a new larger patch of it because I read somewhere that the long thin early spring leaves, when blanched for just a minute in boiling water, make a kind of “vegetable spaghetti“ that some people enjoy. I haven’t had a chance to try this yet but it would be a useful addition to my low-carb diet, which is “deficient “ in things to toss with butter and good Parmesan. Salsify  is often grown for the roots, but I find the root fairly bland and not that interesting. I would certainly eat it if I were hungry, though.

Asparagus  is one of my favorite vegetables, and this coming spring I will be planting more of the purple kind, which I find most delicious.  There is just nothing better. If only it were available in the garden for more of the year, I might not bother to grow anything else.

Turkish Rocket  makes delicious buds when harvested at exactly the right phase, with a bitter-nutty flavor very much like broccoli rabe. The season for it is short but pleasurable. I have never found any culinary use for the leaves or older buds.

Sorrel  makes one of my favorite simple sauces when chiffonaded and stewed briefly in butter with a little salt. Salmon was born to be grilled and eaten with sorrel butter. In addition to a healthy large clump of spring leaves, it makes another, even better clump in late fall. Very deserving of garden space. Above, you see the chiffonaded leaves used raw in salmon salad. It takes a surprising amount to make a good flavor impression, so think of sorrel as an ingredient, not a seasoning.

Hops  were planted all along my fences back when I used to brew beer. I don’t brew very  much anymore, but hops shoots are a lovely wild-bitter tasty treat that I look forward to every spring.  I am convinced that fancy preparation is a bad idea. Just rinse them, chop a bunch of them in 1 inch lengths, and fry quickly in olive oil with a generous pinch of salt. Nothing else. Be sure to let them form some browned crispy areas so they can taste their best.

Mulberry  can be kept tightly pruned or coppiced for an excellent harvest of small tender young leaves and shootsat the twig tips.  Don’t try the leathery older leaves, and stems should be tender enough to easily nip off with your thumbnail. It matters which mulberry you get, since some have perfectly good leaves and some are awful. I surreptitiously tasted at the organic nursery where I bought mine, to get leaves that had no unusual toughness or off flavors.  Mulberries have a good amount of resveratrol, but I have no idea about the resveratrol content of the leaves. I would guess, however, that it’s probably in there.  Once you have a mulberry tree you have it forever, and the only problem is keeping it pruned tightly enough that you can reach the leaf tips.  I recently learned from Samuel Thayer‘s newest book that the flowers can also be eaten in salads. I will be trying this next spring.  If you have a yard goat, goats adore mulberry branches above almost anything else, and will happily eat up your prunings. There are some wild food books  that claim that the leaves are hallucinogenic, and others that say the leaves are not hallucinogenic but the water in which they are cooked is. I call nonsense on all of this. Young tender mulberry leaves are one of my favorite greens, and I eat a lot of them, and drink the water that they were cooked in, and nothing remotely interesting has ever happened as a result.  Mulberry leaf tea is also widely used in Asian and given to children and old people, with absolutely no concerns.  I don’t know where this stuff comes from.  I am happy to say that Samuel Thayer, a profound expert on wild foods if ever there was one, talks about culinary  use of the leaves and does not mention this at all. A tightly pruned or coppiced mulberry can be kept in any front yard, since if you keep cutting it back it doesn’t bloom, and after the first few years  will provide a  surprising amount of greens.

Linden  is in all the permaculture books as a tree with edible leaves that can be used in salads or cooked. I have two small Linden trees, and I love the scent when they bloom, but to my taste the leaves are a little bit bland and I prefer good Mulberry leaves.  Still, they make a nice substantial addition to a salad with a good flavorful dressing, and are tenderest and best when gathered just as they emerge from their bracts.

To my immense pleasure, I find that I have more perennial veggies of interest than I thought I had, so I will put the rest in a second post.

 

 

Nettle Season

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If green garlic is always the first thing that I harvest in spring, nettles are always the second. When I moved to New Mexico I couldn’t find any and couldn’t get seeds to germinate, so I was reduced to calling an herb nursery and begging them to dig up some nettles on their property and sell them to me. Every spring I’m glad that I did. Gather the tender tops with as little stem as possible, wearing leather garden gloves. Don’t handle them without gloves, no matter what you read on the Internet. I always manage to pick up a sting on my wrist just above the glove, but it hasn’t killed me yet. Wash in a big bowl of water, stirring them with a wooden spoon. Drain and dump them into lightly salted boiling water. Boil for two minutes and drain. They are now rendered weaponless: the venom (formic acid) has been denatured by heat and the zillions of fine spines that do such a good job of injecting the venom into your skin are soft. Squeeze the drained greens dry, chop them up to eliminate any stringiness in the stems, and finish cooking them any way you like. They are awfully good just braised in cream with a bit of sautéed green garlic and finished with butter and a little salt. You can click on the “greens” category of this blog for some other ideas. They are a mild-flavored green and can be used any way that you use spinach, although the flavor is a little different; “wilder” is the best way I can describe it. They are ultra-nutritious and worthy of a place on your spring menu. They are even…gulp…worth buying plants of if you don’t have them naturally.

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Semi-permaculture

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Every now and then I encounter some committed permaculturist who earnestly wishes to educate me about planning guilds (functional plant groups) in my garden. I just don’t think this way. It seems to me that, if you love to grow food, have a fairly high chaos tolerance, and live somwhere long enough, you will naturally and accidentally discover what thrives in groups in your area, as well as what you really like to eat. Take the large pot above, which has been next to my back patio for four years. It is a microcosm, or micro-cosmos, of my interests over the time since it was placed. In it you can spot the gorgeous leaf lettuce Merlot that I’m growing this year, chickweed that I planted three years ago and which is self-seeding nicely,  moringa that I started experimenting with last year (which, incidentally, wintered over in a pot that isn’t watered in the winter and survived a very cold winter,) Shirley poppies from four years ago when this pot was placed, and wild lettuce which seeds itself all over at my house and which I tolerate because I like it in cooked greens. My planned combinations haven’t come out nearly so well. Everything in this pot is edible; yes, even Shirley poppy leaves are fine in cooked greens. But it all happened through planting things, not weeding too assiduously, and seeing what happened. If you have a poor memory and are prone to planting things in spots where you already planted something else and then forgot about it, some further felicitous combinations will occur.

A linden planted for its edible leaves has a bird-sown wax current bush growing in its shade, bearing more heavily than its siblings in full sun. Bladder campion seeds itself into the shady north corner under the linden. Siberian elms, self-sown all over, can be coppiced for free goat feed. A bird-sown mulberry nearby can be coppiced for tender edible green shoots to use in cooked greens. Stinging nettles, struggling in the baking desert sun, root their way into the shade of the elm and mulberry coppices and begin to flourish. Stems of oyster mushrooms, dug into garden beds in the fall, produce a few nice oyster mushrooms in the shade of lettuce the following year. A single lambs-quarters is allowed to seed, and late-spring crops of mild and nutritious greens show up all around your intentional plantings for years.  A Russian olive that grows smack in the middle of a garden bed despite years of cutting it back and cursing it, can be pruned into a support for climbing snow peas. A really poor clump of garlic at the base of a tree, left by the last owner, turns out to be indestructible through baking summers and perfect for green garlic. Scorzonera and wolfberries make some good food out of baking unimproved spots where you can’t get anything else to grow. A local non-edible legume, the desert bird-of-paradise, springs up and offers light shade to the wolfberry, giving it a new lease on life and more tender leaves that you can toss into greens mixtures.  None of this is especially tidy, and the straight-row sort of gardener would never tolerate it. But for those of us who love a bit of natural mess and take our vegetables and our epiphanies where we can find them, it works.

 

A Glory of Greens, and notes on Turkish greens soup

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There is nothing more vibrant than a garden full of greens in the spring, all growing like mad, offering you a million healthy possibilities. During the two unfortunate years that I couldn’t garden, I did at least rogue out all the weeds that weren’t edible, and now nearly everything that sprouts in my beds is delicious, whether I planted them intentionally or not. And everybody, every one of us, would do well to eat more greens. Our health would improve and we would feel so damn good. Remember, the REAL Mediterranean diet, the one that was originally studied on Crete and that produced a long-lived and healthy population, was based on a huge variety of cultivated and wild greens.

Today I noticed nettles, spinach, and lambs-quarters that needed to be harvested pronto. I also had lively green garlic ready to harvest. I picked a three-gallon pail to the brim, but loosely filled as I threw the bounty in, not packed down. I washed them ( it goes without saying that when nettles are in the mixture, you use gloves whenever handling them and stir in the washing water with a big wooden spoon, not your hand,) and decided to make a Turkish greens soup for dinner.
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This is a soup that I have been making variations of since a lovely trip to Turkey nearly thirty years ago. It is based roughly on a soup that my guide described his wife making, but it’s interpreted by me and changes every time I make it, so I don’t vouch for its authenticity. This time it was a thick velouté; other times it’s a rough potage, and sometimes it resembles gumbo z’heirbes. So here’s how this one happened:
Prepare and wash three gallons, loosely packed, of assorted greens. No bland store-bought baby spinach! If you don’t have a garden, consider chard, adult spinach, and Tuscan kale, one bunch each.
Pull a quart of good rich chicken stock out of the freezer (it is in there, isn’t it?)or procure a quart of good chicken stock from somewhere.
Set the chicken stock to melting over medium heat in a gallon pot.
Chop three large stalks of green garlic, stems, leaves, and all, and sauté them in a quarter cup or so of excellent olive oil in a sauté pan. OR use a small onion and two cloves of garlic, chopped, for the sauté step. Make sure they are cooked through, and soft but not colored, before proceeding.
When the garlic mixture is ready and the stock is boiling, begin adding the greens to the stock, stirring, and remembering not to touch those nettles. Boil for about a minute after the last of the greens is added. Now add the garlic mixture to the soup pot and simmer for five minutes.
Now purée with a stick blender. Add salt to taste (I think it needs to be on the salty side)and add a teaspoon of Urfa pepper flakes, Aleppo pepper flakes, or mild red pepper flakes. I like a bit of oregano and thyme. Taste and correct the seasoning carefully.
Mix some full-fat Greek yogurt with salt to taste and have it ready.
Put six egg yolks in a bowl, whisk them up, and slowly add a cup of the hot soup, whisking furiously all the time. Slowly pour the egg mixture into the soup over lowest heat, and whisk another minute or two until it’s lightly thickened and smooth.
Serve into bowls, pile a half cup of salted yogurt in each bowl, drizzle lavishly with your best olive oil, and sprinkle heavily with more Urfa or red pepper flakes. Eat, and flourish.
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Filling the Hunger Gap

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Our recent sunny warm days have brought the happy little Crysanthus crocuses up, and when they bloom I know that I’ve survived another winter and we are well on toward spring. But we are still in the time of year called the “hunger gap,” when in leaner times you would have eaten most of your preserved and stored food and fresh food would be a distant memory. In those days, just about the time that scurvy threatened, there would be a precious few fresh foods that would come through for you. I am no longer that interested in eating preserved foods, so the fresh greens of the hunger gap are increasingly important to me.
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Stinging nettles are not just a fresh green in earliest spring, they are a nutritional powerhouse. Vitality and well-being seem to course through your body as you eat them. Also, they’re delicious. They don’t occur naturally in Albuquerque, and I had to buy plants in order to have them, but I have two nice patches now. They need some water and mulch in our desert area, but given those they spread rapidly, so be ready to control them by digging out excess roots when they spread too far. They sting fiercely at any age, so don’t plant them near paths and have good heavy leather gloves (they sting right through fabric) ready for harvesting. Pick any time after they reach about 5-6 inches high, harvesting the top 2 or 3 inches. You will have about a month to harvest before they get tough, gritty, and nasty. Keep your gloves on while you wash them and drop them into boiling water. Once blanched for 1-2 minutes, their spines are softened and their venom is broken down, and you can treat them like spinach or any other mild green. I love them in omelets or just blanched and chopped with some butter and cream. Be aware that the raw nettles can sting animals as well as people, and severe allergic reactions to the sting are possible, so please do site them responsibly.
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Bladder campion is another weed that doesn’t occur naturally in central New Mexico. I bought seeds from an herb supplier. Sprinkle them in a place that you can keep watered in late winter. In hot sunny areas they will appreciate a little shade. They will be scant and spindly the first year, and there won’t be anything to harvest. The second year you can pinch off the tips when they are 6-8 inches tall to add to salads, and by the third year you should get enough to cook. They are among the tenderest and mildest of wild greens, and I prefer them in salads, but a quick sauté in a little good butter is nice too.
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Tronchuda is not a weed, but a Portuguese kale with a cabbagey but mild flavor and enough vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to make you crow. I bought my seeds from Nichols Garden Nursery a couple of years ago, and am selecting the ones that live through the winter for my Hunger Gap crop. You plant them in the spring, harvest the huge leaves for greens in summer and fall ( my chickens appreciate them too), and then leave the stem and the tuft of leaves at the top over the winter. They won’t survive if you don’t leave some leaves on. Those that survive will begin to leaf out again in February and provide you with thick, substantial leaves for stir-fries and cooking by early March. They are biennial and begin to shoot to flower by late March, and you can harvest the buds as a broccoli-like vegetable. Do bear in mind that if you want to save seed, you have to leave plenty of clusters to go to flower. Bees love the flowers and they are a nice early source of nectar. Collect the seed, dry them, and start the cycle over again.