Fall is for fennel! As the days cool down, now is the perfect time to plant this tasty, nutritious and delicious herb.
This pretty plant has a long history of use, and why not? The entire fennel plant is useful. Its leaves, roots, stems, flowers and seed are all edible.
As a spice, the seed is used in beef dishes or in breads and cakes, depending on nationality. Leaves, roots, stems and flowers can be eaten raw, steamed or added to soups and stews.
On a larger scale, fennel seed is harvested and used industrially as a flavoring agent in medicines and liqueurs. Fennel has been used as an herbal infusion or tea to promote digestion, stimulate the appetite, and as a compress for swollen eyes.
Start fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) in October in your winter garden. Local nurseries carry fennel seedlings, or you can start plants from seed. For eating, select “sweet fennel,” while for seed you merely need “fennel.”
Soil: Like most herbs, fennel grows best in a well-drained, slightly acidic soil, rich in organic matter. It is also easy to grow in containers. Use a pot one and a half feet deep. Potting soil with some added sand makes a good growing media.
Light: Fennel needs six or more hours of winter sun to do well.
Location: Choose a spot that is protected from high winds because toward the end of the season, the tall hollow stalks can be easily blown over. You can also place tomato cages around young plants to provide support later.
Plant: Sow seeds a quarter-inch deep in rows around 18 inches apart. When seedlings are 2 inches high, thin them to stand around a foot apart. Fennel also looks nice planted in a cluster in a flowerbed.
Water: Keep the soil evenly moist during establishment. Once well established, you can let fennel dry a little between waterings. Some people believe this makes the flavor stronger.
Fertilizer: Fennel should not require fertilizer. If you amended your soil at the start of the growing season, the plants should do fine. Plus, avoid fertilizing anything when frosts are a possibility. In late February, you could apply a general-purpose fertilizer at half-strength.
Harvest and storage: Harvest fresh leaves as you desire for use in salads or egg dishes. I like to simply munch on a few leaves as I work in the garden. Harvest fennel bases for cooking once they reach softball size. Harvest seed by cutting stalks once seed starts to ripen. Tip stalk and all into a large paper bag. Let everything dry for several weeks before cleaning and storage. Store all herbs in airtight containers out of direct sunlight.
Fennel looks fine in the garden, plus attracts winged wildlife. Butterflies, birds such as the lesser goldfinch, and bees all visit the blooms.
You may also see the larva of the swallowtail butterfly eating the leaves. Because the larvae pupate into such lovely butterflies, I always plant enough so there is plenty for me and enough for baby butterflies, too.
Dr. Jacqueline A. Soule will include fennel during a discussion and book signing for her latest book, Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today (Tierra del Sol Press, $14.95) on Oct. 19 at the Western National Parks Association Store, 12880 N. Vistoso Village Drive in Oro Valley. Reservations for the presentation are required. Please call WNPA at 622-6014 during business hours, beginning one week prior to the event.