Tag Archives: fennel

Fennel: A Multitasking Herb

fennel in the summer with caterpillar in right corner

I grow fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, in my Virginia garden for many reasons. As an accent in the garden, fennel grow easily from seed to a few feet tall. Sometimes, they are erect and sometimes they bend from weight to weave among the perennials and shrubs. Their tubular stems mingle with the pumpkin vines on the ground or rest on top of the chrysanthemum shrubs while their green, fern-like foliage peak through the zinnias.

Throughout the summer, I can harvest the foliage for use in the kitchen. The leaves have an anise flavor and are good for flavoring fish and chicken dishes and root vegetables. Snips of the foliage can be sprinkled on salads, soup, eggs, and tuna salad sandwiches.

In the summer, the fennel blooms with large, star-burst like structures, comprising many small yellow flowers. These attract beneficial insects and pollinators, good for the rest of my garden. Sometimes, I clip the flower heads for floral arrangements but I always let some flowers go to seed.

In the fall, I clip the seed heads and put them in a paper bag. I save some seeds for sowing next year and some for the kitchen. The seeds have medicinal qualities (the foliage does not) and are often served at the end of the meal in restaurants to help with digestion and to freshen the breath. Eating the seeds or making a tea from the seeds can relieve flatulence, bloating, gas, indigestion, cramps, and muscle spasms. Fennel seeds are also called “meeting seeds” because when the Puritans had long church sermons they chewed on the seeds to suppress hunger and fatigue.

fennel as a filler in the garden

In the kitchen, seed can be used whole or ground or toasted in a dry frying pan. Seeds can be used as a spice for baking sweets, breads, and crackers, or in sausage, or herbal vinegars and pickling. The seeds have the same anise flavor but are so sweet, they taste like they are sugar-coated. For me it is like eating small candies, especially tasty after drinking coffee.

I also grow fennel for the caterpillar form of the black swallowtail butterflies. The caterpillars love to eat the foliage and it makes me happy to grow food for them and to support the butterfly population.

Sometimes the fennel comes back the next year, it really depends on the winter. I have heard that in warmer climates it gets out of control but in my zone 7 garden, it has not been an issue. After a hard freeze, when I am cleaning up the garden, I cut back the old fennel stalks revealing new foliage at the base. In December, the new foliage is just as lush and green, providing me with more fennel for my recipes as well as a nice garnish for holiday meals.

fennel seeds in the fall with the mums

Fennel is easy to grow from seed and should be sowed directly in the garden. The plants have a tap root and do not like to be transplanted. The plants prefer full sun but can tolerate some shade and they need well-drained soil. Treat them like summer annuals and sow seeds every year.

fennel in December

I should point out that there are two types, Foeniculum vulgare, which is the leafy one I grow, and Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce, which is the bulbing type. I have grown the bulbing type before but not for the accents it provides in the garden bed. The bulbing type is a shorter plant with a bulbous base so it is harvested for the bulb before it flowers and sets seed. The bulb is often sliced fresh for salads or cooked with fish and vegetables. One could consider the bronze fennel a third type, it grows like the leafy fennel only it is a dark bronze color, not bright green. Bronze fennel also can be used in the kitchen.

In the kitchen, use the foliage for:

  • green salads
  • fruit salad (nectarine/apricot)
  • egg dishes
  • soup and chowders
  • chicken salad or tuna salad
  • Dips and cream sauces
  • yeast breads
  • fish, put a fish filet on bed of leaves and broil or mix leaves with butter and drizzle over the fish
  • vegetables such as root vegetables, peas and potatoes
  • Combine with parsley, chervil, and thyme or make a fennel, parsley, thyme and lemon juice rub for white fish

Seeds can be used for:

  • Fish soup/stock
  • Cucumber salads
  • Soft cheeses
  • Bread/biscuits/crackers
  • Sausage mixtures and pork dishes
  • Pickling vegetables
  • Marinades for meat
  • Bean, couscous, lentil or bulgur wheat dishes
  • Potato salad
  • Dry rubs or spice blends/powders

Saying Hi to Old Friends, a Mid-March Walk Around the Garden

I love to walk around the garden in March to see what is coming back but at the same time, I love to start new plants from seeds indoors. This week, mid March, the bright green foliage of parsley has emerged. A biennial, I harvested leaves from this parsley last year; I tend to use parsley quite a bit for meals. This year, the same plant has come back to flower and set seed. I hope to start a parsley patch that will self sow, creating more than enough for the kitchen.

parsley

parsley

The new growth on the tansy is pretty but the old growth is messy, which I will need to trim when it gets a little warmer. Last year, I used the tansy for flower arrangements. This year, I will see if there are more uses for tansy. I always try new herbs each year and a few weeks ago I started two types of fennel by seed in the house. They germinated so fast I had to pot them up and bring them outside for more light. You can’t really tell the difference now but the leafy fennel is on the left and the bulbing fennel is on the right. I have several more pots, I may have to give some away!

tansy

tansy

shallots

shallots

The slender shallots braved the snow; they were this size this last fall when I transplanted the seedlings to this bed. As the weather warms up the shallots will continue to grow and make little bulbs for cooking. Their cousin, the chesnok red hardneck garlic, was planted last fall to be harvested this summer. Their perennial cousin, the walking onion or Egyptian onion, has been thriving in the garden for years now and feel quite at home among a tulip and a hyacinth.

leaf fennel on left and bulb fennel on right

leaf fennel on left and bulb fennel on right