Saturday, March 14, 2015


Good things come to those who wait.  I was in a waiting room a few years back and picked up a gourmet cooking magazine. There was a recipe and photo of sauteed salmon in a bed of fennel. It was stunning! Unfamiliar with fennel,  it went on my new-vegetables-to-grow list. Turns out, it is so irresistibly delicious with salmon, that it makes sense to grow several rounds of fennel each season... beginning in March.

Fennel is described in literature as both an Italian heirloom herb and a vegetable. With its anise (licorice) flavor and scent, fennel foliage and stalks are chopped and eaten fresh in many ways, including salads. The fragrant foliage and seeds are often used in teas.
It is the bulb-like base that tastes absolutely divine when sliced like an onion and sauteed in olive oil along with salmon. The licorice flavor is cooked away and replaced with something indescribable. You will simply have to try it!

Get this. Fennel likes to grow in cool, wet climates in rich, well drained soil. A match made in heaven... fennel and fertile Sitka gardens!

There are many varieties of fennel and all seem to taste fine and grow equally well. By starting the first batch of fennel in March, we have harvested as early as the end of June. Weather is a huge factor. So, in order to have a steady supply of fresh fennel all season,  I start fennel seeds again in May and again in June.

Fill a dozen 4" pots (or however many you want) with potting or seed starting soil. Place the 4" pots in a casserole-size container or tray. Once filled, use your finger to press three or four dimples into each soil filled 4"pot. Drop a fennel seed into each of the dimples with the hope that at least one or two of the seeds in each pot will germinate and sprout. If you have it, cover  the surface  of each 4" pot with about 1/2"of fine sand. (The sand on the surface seems to allow the soil below to absorb water uniformly, causes the seeds to stay undisturbed and is an inviting medium through which sprouts grow).  If you have no sand, use about 1/2" more of potting soil to cover the seeds:
Use one variety of fennel for all your pots,
or mix it up with several varieties.

With room temperature water, gently and thoroughly water the pots. Cover the pots in the tray with plastic (recycled plastic grocery bags split open work fine). Place the covered container of pots on a seed starting heat mat or in the warmest location in your home. Take the plastic off to water when necessary and then replace the plastic. 

It takes a week or two for fennel seeds to germinate. Once the seeds have sprouted, remove the plastic  cover permanently.

Fennel roots do not like to be disturbed, so you might not like this next part. If more than one seed germinates per pot, carefully remove excess tiny plants with a spoon soon after germinating and transplant each tiny plant into its own 4" pot. Otherwise, pull out and discard all but the one healthiest sprout per pot, as I often do.  If you wait until later to separate the plants, when the roots have developed, it causes the plants to have early bolting. Early bolting means no bulb-like base on the plant. It just shoots up, eager to move on to the seed formation stage.

Now that there is one plant growing per 4" pot, let the fennel plants grow in your best lit window for 4 to 6 weeks. Remember to water regularly. Next, shift the container of plants outside to a cold frame or greenhouse for hardening off (getting used to cooler nights). Because fennel plants are okay with slightly cooler soil, it is not necessary to keep them in this setting for more than a week or two, unless there is unseasonably cold weather happening. So, as early as mid-May, transplant the fennel plants outside into a fertile, prepared garden bed. Keep them covered with a floating row cover at all times. They like it cool, but not as cool as Sitka summers often are. 
Fennel, a few weeks after transplant into garden bed.
That's chard in the foreground.

Same fennel, to the left of the chard, now ready for harvest.

Uncover periodically to weed and to remove slugs. Slugs seem to prefer hanging out in the feathery tops of fennel, although you will sometimes find slugs enjoying the stalks and bulbs.
Hunting for slugs in the feathery greens of fennel.

Our final fennel harvest was quite large. We started several dozen in June. We ate lots of fennel and shared lots. Quite a few bulbs were sliced and dehydrated. The dehydrated fennel was rehydrated and made into delicious winter soups!
Final harvest of the season!

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