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Sunday, January 25, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 18.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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New greens
Broccoli's amazing two-year cycle

'I don't even like kale,' says my son, 'but this tastes great!'

Maybe because it's not kale, I explain. These are actually broccoli greens.

Broccoli greens? Now that's a new concept.

I had no idea what would happen when I decided to let the broccoli plants go for a second season. I had tried to pull them out of the ground and add them to the compost pile as winter set in, but they fought back. The still-vibrant roots latched on to the ground and wouldn't come out. I'm a bleeding-heart progressive who has a hard time killing things, so I decided that plants that struggle so hard to stay alive should get a chance. I knew broccoli is a biennial plant, so I didn't expect to see new heads, but who knows? Mystery and anticipation are, after all, the spice of life.

When spring came, the plants looked quite dead, but within days new shoots appeared, and then new leaves. The leaves grew, more emerged, and I watched them with a level of disinterest until it occurred to me to try and eat them. What I found was a tasty new green that can be eaten raw in salads or cooked. I agree with my son ' they're tastier than kale, though they can be prepared just the same.

Broccoli, like kale, is a member of the cole family. It is extremely nutritious, rich in vitamin A, folic acid, iron and vitamin C, which helps the body absorb the iron. One cup of cooked broccoli has as much vitamin C as an orange, fulfilling your daily vitamin C requirement. Also present are vitamins B1, B2, B3 and B6 and magnesium, potassium and zinc. On the calorie side, a cup of cooked broccoli has only 44 calories, while a cup of the raw vegetable has only 24.

It likes cool weather and is best grown in spring or fall. Because broccoli does poorly in hot weather, it is usually planted as a seedling, not from seed ' and it can be planted early because it's frost tolerant.

Give it well-composted manure and/or compost, keep it evenly watered (1 to 1.5 inches of water per week) and space seedlings 18 inches apart in the row with 24 inches between rows. Mulch will help keep the soil cool and moist, as well as weed-free. If you need to weed, do it by hand so as not to disturb the broccoli's significant root system. When the plants are established and start to produce heads, give them a generous offering of manure tea.

In the broccoli's first year, you'll get its familiar delicious heads. Harvest them when the buds are still tight and before the yellow petals begin to show (though I've been known to eat heads with some yellow flowers too). Cut the stem five to six inches below the head (and eat the stem parts that are not hard. They, too, are tasty and full of healthy nutrients). Most cultivars, Green Comet foremost, will produce smaller side shoots for at least another month, sometimes for the entire season.

Broccoli is quite hardy in our region and not easily affected by pests and diseases, but when they occur they include the cabbage looper and imported cabbage worm, cabbage root maggot, aphids, flea beetles, blackleg, black rot, clubroot and yellows. Cover the plants with floating row covers to avoid all insects. (Floating row covers are available at most garden centers.) If aphids take over, spray the plants with a strong squirt of water, garlic spray or insecticidal soap. To avoid cabbage maggot, mound wood ashes, diatomaceous earth or ground hot pepper around the stems.

Enjoy the heads during that first season. When the plant stops producing and starts going into dormancy, cut the stalks down to within two inches of the ground. Leave them be until spring, when they start producing new stalks. Then repeat the feeding from last year ' manure, manure tea and compost. Start harvesting the leaves when they are big enough and continue harvesting them all season long!

My two-year-old plants are still in the ground. Will they produce new heads this coming third season? Your guess is as good as mine. I'll report next year.

Simple, delicious broccoli greens

Fry onion and garlic in olive oil or butter. When lightly browned, add a large bunch of washed broccoli greens. Add soy sauce when the leaves have shrunk and let cook for another minute. Enjoy the best 'kale greens' ever!

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