Fennel is a fabulous vegetable that forms a bulb above the soil surface, and can be grown year round in milder climates. The bulb has a licorice flavor to it, and the seed is widely used to spice-up sausages and pasta sauces. It can be directly sown in the garden, or started in flats in the greenhouse (or in a makeshift one in your laundry room or garage...but more about that later).
I normally wouldn't chance sowing fennel directly in the garden in late October. That's because here at Love Apple Farm, in central California, it would not be warm enough to have the seeds germinate. However, the weather report this morning encouraged me to give it a shot. The forecast is for the next week to be sunny and warm. So I'll give it a try. If it works, great. If it doesn't, I'll just pop some other transplants into that bed later.
As you can see in the picture below, I have some fennel already up and growing strong. We've been harvesting it for the restaurant, in fact, and now I have a half bed empty in which to put some more fennel.
Elsewhere in the garden, I have another half bed which I direct sowed about five weeks ago, and you can see below that it's merrily growing. See the bare patch? That's just an area that didn't germinate. If I wanted, I could add some more seed and try again in the bare patch, but I think I'll just let that be for now. This new patch of fennel will need to be thinned soon, and the chef will love to see those thinnings in his delivery. One of the nice things about having your own restaurant garden is that you can get things never found at a farmer's market. In this case, it's the tiniest of baby fennels.
But I digress, let's get back to sowing a new bed of fennel. First, let's have a little tutorial on how fennel seed can be saved and used. I had a bed of fennel this past summer that didn't bulb up, it just went straight to a bolt. "Bolting" means that instead of forming it's edible part slowly and nicely, a vegetable plant will send up its flower spike. In the case of fennel, the bulb at the base of the soil never developed, but the plant began to reproduce anyway, and sent up a bunch of lovely upside-down umbrella-like flowers.
We definitely don't mind when the fennel sends up their flower spikes, as the bees love them and the chef uses little parts of the flower to garnish dishes. He can also shake the little flower and release its pollen. Both things have a very pungent licorice taste. If you really want to ensure that your fennel bulbs up rather than bolts, be sure to give it plenty of nitrogen. During bed preparation and during growth, make sure the plants will get a lot of nitrogen. While preparing the bed, use organic nitrogen fertilizers such as blood meal or alfalfa meal (read on to see what I use), and while the fennel is growing, make sure it gets at least two applications of fish emulsion, and you'll be just fine.
Once the flowers have dried on the plant, you can see how the yellow flower has turned into a brown seed mass. I just clip them off and throw them into a paper bag for storage. Be sure to write the name on the bag.
Here is what the dried fennel umbel looks like:
You can easily remove the seed heads by gently rubbing them between your fingers. You can use these to sow more fennel, or you can use them in cooking. These freshly dried fennel seeds are a lot more potent than super-market bottled fennel seeds. Delish!
My bed has already been prepped with all my standard goodies (crab meal, sulfate of potash, humic acid, and worm castings/compost. We'll have another post on how to do that on a later date). It's been dug in and raked smooth as a baby's butt. I just take pinchfuls of my fennel seeds and sprinkle over the top of the soil. The seeds are a bit hard to see in this photo, but the lighter colored dots are the seeds. What you want to be aware of, is that sowing at a less-than-opportune time (late October) will result in many of these seeds not germinating, so plan accordingly and sow two to three times more seed than you normally would. For me, that means I'll probably try to have at least 50 seeds per square foot. Also note that I'm broadcast sowing. That means I'm not going to the trouble of making neat symmetrical rows into which to sow the seeds. "Broadcast" sowing is just sprinkling them willy nilly, hither and yon, and trying half-assed to get the seeds basically kinda sorta covering the whole bed without way too many in any one place, and without not having enough in other places. Get it? Not very scientific. For you OCD folks out there, just wait and see how meticulous I can get on some of this stuff. But I've learned my lesson with fennel, and precision is not necessary here.
Ok, so now that the seeds are sprinkled around nicely, we need to cover them up. You could go get some soil elsewhere and sprinkle it on top of the seeds, but I've found it's just as effective if I bury the seeds by kind of scratching them into the surface with a rake. I don't actually rake the soil, I use an up and down plunging motion with the rake, then move it an inch, plunge it up and down again, and move along covering the whole bed. I don't pull the rake through the soil, it just goes up and down in it. You can see the rake marks I've left behind in this photo if you click on it to get a larger shot:
Once that's done, I turn the rake over and tamp down the whole surface gently, seating or firming the soil on top of the seeds that I've just jostled under the surface. I'll then reposition my emitter line irrigation, holding it down with a landscape staple:
I'll do that for the whole bed. I typically use four or five lines of 6" emitter tubing in each bed (I'll give the odd class on irrigation...if you are interested in attending one, subscribe to my newsletter to hear an announcement of the next one).
Then I water in the bed really well. It takes a lot more water than you'd think to penetrate a few inches into the soil.
For a lot of sown crops, and for fennel in particular, I cover the bed with lightweight floating row cover, also known as crop fabric, frost cloth, Remay, or Agribond (the last two are manufacturer names). We'll have a tutorial on this fabric soon. To prevent the row cover from blowing away, I affix it with landscape staples around the edges. You can see I've doubled up the row cover a bit on this bed. That's because the row cover was too big, and I didn't want to cut it. Having it doubled-up isn't going to make much difference. The reason I cover the bed is three-fold: Birds love to eat the tender shoots of fennel, and the row cover will keep the soil a bit warmer at night, helping the germination to occur now that the nights are cooler. It will also keep the soil uniformaly moist, so that it is less likely to dry out and hamper germination. If you ever let the soil dry out while some seeds are germinating, the seeds will be killed, and you'll get crappy sprouting.
Once the row cover is in place and stapled down, you can see how easy it is to water directly through it. While seeds are germinating, I will typically water them every day in warm weather, and every other day in cool or overcast weather. Once the seeds start sprouting, I will continue watering them by hand each day or two for another couple of weeks, just to help along the late sprouters. Not all the seeds will germinate on the same day. Some are faster than others. The other thing I'll do is to loosen up the row cover after they sprout, giving them some space underneath for growth. I still keep the cover on, though, to keep the birds off for a time. After about a month or 6 weeks, the seedlings are big enough so that the birds leave them alone.
Be sure to thin as they grow, to allow them room to bulb up, and fertilize them after about 8 weeks, with another fertilization a month after that. Fennel will grow slowly during the shorter and colder days of winter. I'm predicting that this fennel, if it sprouts, will start to be harvested around February 1st. But of course, the chef will start to get thinnings before that.
The first five commentors to give me a little story about fennel, a recipe, or any other tip about it, I'll happily send you a packet of fresh Love Apple Farm fennel seeds!