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Barbara Pleasant: Growing Bulb Fennel

 
bulb fenne florence fennelwern

It's a little nutty, but I know I am not the only one who grows things because I want to try a recipe in its most perfect form.

Bulb fennel is transplantable up to a surprisingly large size. A local organic farm keeps their plants in 2-inch pots until they are 6 inches tall, and then finishes them off in the field. The same approach works great in the garden.

fennel regrows from stump
Fennel resprouts from the stump! Cut the main bulb high, and then harvest baby sprouts a few weeks later.
My new book, coming in May 2017!

Every food gardener can name a vegetable or two that simply refuses to grow for them. But you don't give up. Instead, you keep on trying to grow it, all because of a recipe.

 

So goes my story with learning to grow bulb fennel (Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum), also known as finocchio. The recipe was a simple guyere gratin, and I'm proud to say that ultimately, it was wonderful. Even better than fennel braised in butter, if you can imagine that.

 

It took me three seasons to learn how to grow bulb fennel, and but it turns out I had bad information. Regardless of what the seed packet says, you cannot grow bulb fennel in 55, 70 or even 80 days. It takes 90 days to get a good crop.

Caring for Fennel

Although the seedlings are small, bulb fennel grows into a large plant. Crowding reduces bulb size, so I allow at least 12 inches between plants for the spring crop, and 16 inches for fall-grown bulb fennel, because they tend to be larger plants.

 

When the plants begin to bulb, I douse them once or twice with a high-nitrogen liquid organic fertilizer. They respond by bulking up steadily for another month. Providing this supplemental N is crucial to grow big bulbs. 

Too Many Names for Fennel


Bulb fennel and anise fennel and sweet anise are the same thing, at least as far as many produce managers are concerned. In markets, bulbs of fennel may be labeled finocchio, Florence fennel, sweet anise, or anise fennel.


When you get used to growing fennel in your garden, you tend to drop the bulb, and just call it fennel. The other plant is herb fennel (Foeniculum vulgare).

If your finocchio blooms, it has passed the life stage during which it should bulb. But all is not lost! Fennel flowers attract native bees and beneficial insects, and fennel pollen makes an interesting culinary spice – somewhat like curry, but much lighter with floral notes. Pollen is easy to gather by gently bending over blossom clusters and shaking them into a large plastic bag.  The next day and the next, new florets will open and release more pollen for you and the bees.
bulb fennel foliage

New uses for an ancient veggie

Selected for its thickened juicy stems, bulb fennel was a common food in Italy by the
Middle Ages. Charlemagne reportedly liked it, which helped its popularity in France. Here in the US, bulb fennel is sadly underappreciated, in the garden and at the table. Raw bulb fennel pairs wonderfully with oranges or pistachios in salads, or you can accent with olives when using finocchio in risottos or other grain dishes. Roasted fennel with parmesan cheese is a classic, but you really do have to try a bubbly finocchio gratin!


bulb fennel seedlings

This healthy bed of adolescent plants is almost ready for a booster feeding with a high nitrogen liquid fertilizer.

bulb fennel

In my Zone 6b garden (frost dates May 10 and October 10), I grow bulb fennel twice a year. For the spring crop, I start seedlings indoors between March 25 and April 10. These are set out in early to mid-May, under cloches if needed for wind protection. The first planting is ready to harvest in early July. For the second planting, I start seeds indoors between June 25 and July 10, and try to get the seedlings in the ground by August 1. My fall bulb fennel matures in early October.

bulb fennel garden

Bulb fennel is a variation of more

primitive herb fennel (Foeniculum

vulgare), a short-lived hardy perennial

that is grown for its feathery foliage

and tasty seeds. But watch out,

because herb fennel can can reseed

too well and become weedy.

growing bulb fennel
Advice on Fennel Varieties

I have had excellent luck with ‘Trieste’

from Renee's Garden for my a spring

crop, and it grows well for fall, too. Last

year I grew ‘Victorio’ from

 Territorial Seeds for my fall

crop, with outstanding results.