Lauterbach: Figuring out fennel

Special to The Idaho StatesmanJuly 26, 2013 

If it has a bulb, it’s Florence fennel.

MCT

There are three types of fennel, and even many veteran gardeners don't realize that. A friend, a professional gardener, complained her sweet fennel wasn't developing a white bulb. Sweet fennel's botanical name is Foeniculum vulgare dulce, and it's grown for its feathery foliage. It's very tasty as an accompaniment to fish, for instance. It does have a pleasant anise-like flavor, but it does not form bulbs.

A close relative is Bronze fennel, botanic name F. vulgare dulce "Rubrum." Its foliage may be used the same way the green foliage of sweet fennel is used. It doesn't form bulbs either.

Florence fennel, known botanically as F. vulgare azoricum, or "Finocchio," produces a bulbous white base that may be sliced in salads, sauteed or chopped into casseroles. Its flavor, too, is anise-like. Its foliage may be used as well. All three varieties produce tasty seeds used as spices.

The first two fennels may come back as if it's a perennial for a few years. If you want to remove them, you'll have to dig deep. They're harder to remove than the usual plant.

The bulbing fennel, in contrast, is a shallow-rooted annual. For years I started that fennel indoors, then transplanted out. A white root grew on top of the soil, but no bulb began forming. I finally started covering the white visible root with soil, and that forced it to initiate bulb formation.

A few years later, I let some go to seed in the garden after trying to harvest fennel pollen, the latest craze among "foodies." Next spring when plants began to come up from the previous summer's seed, they grew perfectly, without the weird root on the surface of the soil. Self-seeding proved to be the superior way to grow this interesting vegetable.

COULD IT HAVE BEEN THE WINTER RYE?

My garden is looking better this summer than ever before. Squash is vigorous, cucumbers are shooting up, and pole beans have topped their trellises, tendrils waving in the breeze. Kale and collards have exploded in size. Tomatoes are vigorous, and some fruit is setting, but not a lot, thanks to our high temperatures. And chiles are setting pods.

What did I do differently this year? Last fall we planted winter rye as a cover crop. Perhaps we seeded too late, but the rye in most beds was fairly sparse, so I didn't have high hopes for it. My garden helper spaded in the rye early last spring. Rye roots had formed thick clumps, so were more widely beneficial than I'd expected.

The only other thing different that we did was to spread shredded leaves from last November over the beds when seedlings were quite small. They are deteriorating, and where the layer is thin, weeds are poking through.

IT'S DEADLY, BUT TAKES TIME

Some folks question my trust in Neem, saying squash nymphs don't immediately drop dead when sprayed. No, they don't.

Neem is a different kind of insecticide. It disrupts insect hormones, so they forget how and what to eat, how to mate, how to fly, and then they die. Products containing Neem didn't used to claim that it killed eggs, but at least some labels now claim that.

In a densely-planted bed of squash plants, it's not unusual to miss a cluster of eggs. When they hatch, all of the newly-hatched nymphs tend to stay together in a clump, a convenient target for spraying insecticide. When you spray the new larvae, they forget to eat and moult, and they die.

They can and will destroy their source of food. Send garden questions to melauter@earthlink.net or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.

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