Thursday, July 4, 2013


                Just what the… is fennel?
                Oh how many times I have been asked what fennel is at the farmer’s market! Or, more specifically, what does one do with it? My clichéd remark always seems to elicit the same exasperated sigh… “You eat it.” That never seems to answer the question. So what exactly is fennel?
                Fennel is in the umbelliferae family. This family of plants is so named because of the manner in which it flowers and produces seeds, that is, by the formation of umbels. (That is the extent of my description on umbels here. You will have to look up further info if you are curious.) The umbelliferae family also includes carrots, although fennel tastes nothing like carrots. Dill is also in that family… and fennel tastes nothing like dill. Okay, here we go… cilantro, cumin, caraway, celery, parsley, even Queen Anne’s lace are part of the umbelliferae family, and NONE of those varieties taste like fennel.
                So what does fennel taste like? In my quickest and best description, it has a mild anise (which is also in the umbelliferae family, and DOES somewhat taste like fennel) flavor, which is close to the flavor of liquorice.
                Alright, I have to pause here because my word check thing on the computer tells me that I spelled liquorice wrong, which, by the way, I HAVE NOT, but while checking into the spelling, I have discovered that the “umbelliferae” plant family is now known as the “apiaceae” family. Good grief, but where did that come from? Now I have to investigate into this “apiaceae” thing when it was quite easy to know an umbelliferae plant… by its umbels… and I have not even described that accurately! Who is coming up with these terms anyway?!!
                Ugh! Where was I? Okay, fennel… here is a picture…

                And here is one a little closer up…

                Fennel is popular in Mediterranean cuisine and is a delicious addition to quite a few dishes from salads to stir fry. But this is not why fennel is the focus of this entry. While fennel is delicious to humans, I have not found many other creatures with the same palate. And so, other than parsley worms and perhaps a slug or two, I do not worry about pest or mammal damage to my fennel plantings.
                At least I didn’t… until we planted out the third batch of seedlings. This process takes seedlings that we started in soil blocks and then transplants them in a row less than a foot apart. Here is another picture of a fennel row…

                So, we finished planting the seedlings and the day was finished. The next day, I saw this…

                On the right side of the row, you can make out the soil blocks, which are darker in color, that had been removed from the soil… and the fennel devoured! What the…?!!!
                Here I will pause to stress that there is always something “new” that develops in farming, and whatever the “new” development may be, it is usually negative in some form or another.  Once again I will assert that Murphy, of Murphy’s Law fame, MUST have been a farmer. “Whatever can go wrong, will.” After years of growing fennel, I have never encountered such an event as a new row of fennel being devoured in its entirety.
                But such was the case. So, as with all the “new” developments on the farm, the matter was investigated so as to avoid a similar situation in the future. First off, who or what was the culprit? It was obvious that some creature ripped the entire plants from the soil, every last one of them. Immediately, the situation appeared quite odd. I will explain.
                Here is a close up of a ripped up soil block with no fennel remaining…

                My first thought was some type of mammal must have been the culprit. A rabbit, and there are rabbits in that field… damn rabbits, but I ruled that one out. Rabbits nibble here and there. They do not devour over two hundred transplants neatly planted in two straight rows. Nor have I even seen nibble damage from rabbits on fennel. Deer were out of the question because no deer get into the deer fence in that area. The only other mammal culprit possibility would have been a groundhog. In fact, groundhogs are the only creature, besides humans, of which I have witnessed “mow” down an entire row of vegetables without leaving a survivor. But I ruled out groundhogs as well for two reasons. First, there are crops in that field that groundhogs love, such as lettuce and beans and none of those plants had been touched. Groundhogs for some reason had not made an appearance at the farm at that point, which is absolutely amazing, albeit a complete digression.
                The second reason can be seen in the pictures…

                There were no visible footprints! Neither rabbit prints nor groundhog prints could be seen imprinted in the freshly tilled soil. It does not matter what size either a rabbit or groundhog is, it will leave tracks in such freshly tilled soil.
                What then? Aliens? I know some of you have reached that conclusion, but I am still attempting to hold onto sanity at this point. There had to be another culprit, but what?
                Lori, who is helping me at the farm and is a seasoned veteran from Canticle Farm in Olean, New York, mentioned how one year on their farm, crows ate all of their zucchini plants as they sprouted in the fields. Hmm… crows could definitely do that to fennel seedlings as well… And that would explain the lack of footprints… as well as every last one of the seedlings being molested. Crows are a persistent bunch.
                With that, I had my answer. Birds. The fennel was attacked from flying culprits. And of that I am quite certain. The next group of fennel seedlings were covered with row covers to keep those birds out. And it worked… but I may have actually stumbled onto the real culprit as I approached the new seedlings covered with row cover the other day. The farm had been accosted once again this year with a high velocity wind storm, which pulled some of the row cover off of the new fennel. In precisely that area as I approached… I saw a catbird!
                I will have much to say about catbirds in another entry, and that will be at another time. While I LIKE catbirds, and they do good things around the farm, I am beginning to realize that they may need to be “defended” against as well, at least to a degree.
                All in all, the reason the fennel attack has been the focus of this entry is to reveal how complex farming actually is. Nature is constantly evolving, and the farm must evolve as well. And to end with one final cliché… there’s never a dull moment…

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