Sunday, January 29, 2006

Florence Fennel, Real Food

Florence Fennel, Real Food
1384 words
Copyright 2006 Harvest McCampbell

Florence fennel is a delicious and easy to grow - cool weather vegetable. It minds its manners in the garden, unlike its wilder cousins you may have noticed growing along the highway and in vacant lots near the coast. Those wild fennels can grow upwards of 3 – 5 feet tall and the individual plants can reach 6 feet around. Florence fennel by contrast is a diminutive and graceful plant, equally at home in the flower bed or vegetable garden. It is grown primarily for its tender and delicious bulbs, however the stalks, leaves, flowers, and seed are also edible.

Fennel bulbs are much esteemed in Epicurean, European, and other high brow cuisine. Their delicate flavor lends them to inclusion in many dishes, both fancy and simple. They can be grated or slivered raw into salads, diced or sliced for inclusion in soups, casseroles, and stir-fries. The tender stems and leaves can also be used in soups or included with other wild and garden offerings for a mixed sauté of greens and onions. The whole bulbs can also be split in half or quarters, depending on the size, and steamed, braised, or even lightly broiled. They make a tasty and elegant side dish, which can be dressed up with a light mustard or hollandaise sauce, if you must.

The bulbing fennels reach about 2 feet in the garden, before flowering. They have gracefully fern like; fragrant leaves and they thrive in cool moist weather. In temperate mild winter interior zones along Northern CA river valleys, Florence fennel can be successively sown from the autumn equinox through the spring equinox. Those people who live in the cool coastal fog belt can grow and enjoy fresh fennel all year, while those in the snowy mountains will have to content themselves with a spring and fall crop. Those of you that live in the hot summer zones of Northern CA and restrict your gardening to summer time will miss out on this lovely delicacy.

Seeds and sometimes young plants are available from many garden centers, nurseries, and catalogs. My first seeds came from: The seeds were listed as “Fennel Victoria Hybrid - Foeniculm vulgare var. dulse Victoria Hybrid.” I have also bought young plants from Pierson’s Nursery, which were simply labeled “Florence Fennel.” If you are lucky enough to find nursery starts, plant them out in the garden in an area where they get at least a few hours of sun a day, if possible. They do benefit from a spot with good drainage, and protection from gophers is ideal. However don’t be dismayed if you can’t provide the ideal. Fennel is not overly picky. I often grow plants in full winter shade, in spots with poor drainage, and with no gopher protection. It may not be ideal, but I still harvest delectable bulbs.

Seeds can be direct sown, started in 6 packs, or started on a wet paper towel in a plastic sandwich bag. The plastic bag route saves space if you are starting many varieties at once. It also guarantees the seed are evenly moist. You do, however, need to keep a close eye. As soon as the seeds begin germinating they need to be transferred to cell packs. Fennel seeds generally begin germinating within a few days, and most will be up within a week, except during the coldest parts of the winter. I find the young seedlings have a pretty high mortality rate, so I start about twice the number of seeds that I hope to plant out. It takes from 6 to 8 weeks from starting until they are ready to be planted in the garden.

Once your fennel is established, it will be about 2 months until you can cut your first tender bulbs. These bulbs are produced above the ground, and can be used in almost any recipe that calls for celery. Watch the base of the plants, when your bulbs reach the size of tennis balls you can begin cutting them for kitchen use. Only cut as many as you will use on any particular day. The ones left in the ground will grow slowly until they reach softball size or even larger.

When cutting the bulbs think first of how you are going to use them. If you want whole bulbs to halve or quarter, make your cut well below the base of the bulb. Plants cut this low are unlikely to re-sprout. If you are going to dice or sliver your fennel, leave a bit of the bottom of the bulb behind. Fennel cut in this way sometimes re-sprouts. While it is unlikely to form additional bulbs, it may flower and set seed. The flowers and seeds themselves are edible and useful. If you save your own seed to grow you will be a little ahead of the game for the next season.

Summers heat will also cause Florence fennel to bolt. The spindly stalks, which rarely reach 3 feet, benefit from staking. The delicate flowers make a delightful cup of tea or a classy addition to salads. However they are not produced in abundance. If you want seed, leave the flowers to bloom. The nectar and pollen attracts beneficial insects to the garden. If you watch from a short distance you may notice ladybugs, trichogama wasps, lacewings, and hover-flies visiting the flowers. While they are busy filling their tanks for the important and high-energy work of hunting, eating, and parasatizing garden pests – they are also pollinating the flowers.

After the flowers wilt watch carefully as the seeds develop. When the seeds are fat and the stalks turn brown, pick the seed stalks and bring them in to dry in an airy spot. (If you do not catch them in time they may be eaten by birds or simply drop to the ground.) Once the seeds are completely dry you can store them in a seal-able plastic bag or small jar with a tight fitting lid. These seeds can be used to make tea or to season deserts and sauces. Florence fennel sets its seed sparingly, so you may want to reserve it for growing.

Rumors abound that you can’t save seed from hybrids. And certainly it may be preferable to start with seed from heirloom varieties, if you can find them. I have been growing out Florence fennel for several generations of saved seed, some of which originally came to me as hybrids. I have not found any loss of vigor, tenderness, or bulb size what so ever. In fact the plants seem to improve with each successive generation. If you want to save your own seed, select seed from the best plants. Do not save seed from fennel that flowers in winter before making a bulb. Its offspring are unlikely to form bulbs either.

The list of pests that attack Florence fennel is fairly short. Slugs may bother young plants. (You can hand pick the slugs evenings and mornings for fairly effective control.) I lose an occasional mature plant to the gophers. However, fennel doesn’t seem to be the gophers’ favorite food. (Growing in raised beds with hardware cloth or other wire on the bottom of the box works great.) Once they reach a decent size, they have few pests or problems. Slugs tend to leave the larger plants alone – as long as they have some tender lettuce and other yummies to eat instead. Even without protection from gophers I do manage to harvest a few tender bulbs.

Florence fennel meets my criteria for “Real Food.” When fresh, it seems to have a low amine content – making it an excellent choice for those with chronic migraines, anxiety, muscle spasms, high blood pressure, learning disabilities, and other disorders where an inability to process amines may be implicated. It is easy to grow and it produces an ample, tasty crop. It is also easy to prepare and can be used in a variety of dishes. While it is slightly unusual, its flavor is mild. Even the most finicky eater is unlikely to be bothered by a little fennel bulb tucked into soup or casserole. This delectable vegetable is definitely worth seeking out and growing during a season when fresh vegetables are truly welcome.

Copyright 2006 Harvest McCampbell


HellaD said...

Hey thanks for this informative article, I have a quick question for you...would florence fennel do ok as a container plant?

Harvest said...

Hi HellaD . . .

Yes, florence fennel and the other closely related bulbing fennels will do nicely in pots, as long as you move them to a shady spot on hot sunny days. Pots heat up very quickly in the spring (and they are also more subject to freezing in the winter). Bulbing fennel is a cool season crop, so you will need to keep the containers cool. And if you live where it freezes, they will also need sheltered on a cool bright porch to protect them from freezing. For good sized bulbs use a five gallon pot, into which you can plant several starts. As they get crowded, harvest the largest, and let the others continue growing . . .

Anonymous said...

My fennel bulbs don't really develope into "apples" and they are tough. What am I doing wrong?

Harvest said...

Hi, Anonymous,

Make sure the seeds you are using are for bulbing fennel and not for fennel herb or seed. Also if you saved your own seed (or got them from someone who did) they may have crossed with wild fennel. And some seed companies are not strictly careful to keep crosses from happening.

Remember Fennel is a cool season crop, and it is also a heavy feeder. Make sure you plant it in the fall or very early in the spring, in good soil, keep it moist if the rain fails, and a good mulch ought to help. Let me know how you do . . .

Kristine said...

I wonder if I need to divide my bulbs...there seem to be 4 to each plant about a third the size of their peak maturity size. I am hesitant for I don't want to hurt them dividing so late in the growth cycle. When I bought them as starts they looked like individual plants; so I am quite surprised to see so many bulbs. Is this normal? or should I separate them? thanks

Harvest said...

Kristine-- Usually Florence or bulbing fennel is eaten in late winter or early spring, leaving one or more plants in the garden to produce seed. I am not exactly sure what you are looking at in your garden. However, if you are in a temperate region of the northern hemisphere, it is probably too late to think about eating your fennel, and you should just let it to until fall. If it flowers and sets seed--be sure to save some to replant.