ABOUT THE PLANT
Description: Fennel is an erect herb with 4–5 hollow stalks, 1-6 inches long, with feathery foliage at the tips. The bases of the long stalks overlap together to form a thick, crisp bulb that grows above the ground. Fennel has a sweet, mild, licorice-like taste. When roasted, the taste is sweeter, but when sautéed, it is more bitter.
Origin: southern Mediterranean region
Usage: Fennel stalks are used in soups and stews instead of celery. They are also placed under chicken and meats to be roasted. Use the feathery fronds as a garnish. Fennel recipes most often call for the bulb. Eaten raw, it has a crisp texture similar to celery and a fresh licorice flavor which makes it excellent for salads. Roasting a cut-up bulb makes a delicious side dish as the bulb becomes sweet and caramelized. The fennel seed is commonly used in Italian sausages and meatballs.
Interesting facts: Dietary nitrates in fennel have vasodilatory and vaso-protective properties. Because of this, fennel can help lower blood pressure and protect the heart.
HOW TO GROW
General requirements: Fennel prefers full sun and well-drained, rich soil. It prefers cooler temperatures and grows best when daytime temperatures are between 60 and 70 degrees. The seeds must be in the dark to germinate, so plant them ½ inch deep. Water when the top inch of soil feels dry. When bulbs begin to swell, apply a nitrogen-rich liquid fertilizer once every two weeks until harvest.
In the garden: Depending on your climate, you can start sowing seeds outdoors from late spring to mid-summer. Plant ½ in deep, in rows 1ft apart in rich, well-draining soil, in full sun. If thinning is necessary, do not disturb the roots of the remaining plants.
In containers: Fennel produces a long taproot that needs plenty of depth, so make sure the pots are big enough. Plant the seeds ½ deep in well-draining potting soil and place the container in full sun. Keep the soil moist but not soggy.
Transplanting: Start fennel indoors about 4-6 weeks before your last frost. Sow one seed per 4-inch peat pot filled with potting soil. Keep the soil moist but not soggy. Place the pots in a bright window or under grow lights. When you are ready to transplant outdoors into the garden or large container, set the plant still in its peat pot in the new location to avoid disturbing the taproot.
Bulb: Fennel bulbs are harvested in their entirety for culinary use, so they are grown as annuals. Harvest when the swollen bulbs are 3–4 inches across. Cut the bulbs off at ground level. If you leave the roots in place, new small shoots may form, which you can use in salads.
Leaves: Once the plant is well established, you can take a few leaves from different plants to avoid harming the plant.
Seeds: Once the flowers have withered and turned brown, cut the flower stems, spread them out on some newspaper, and let them dry further, out of direct sunlight. Thresh gently to separate seeds. Store them in envelopes or jars in a cool, dry place.
Common name: fennel
Latin name: Foeniculum vulgare
Growth habit: upright herb
Life cycle: short-lived perennial, but grown as an annual
USDA Zones: 4-9
Seeds per ounce: about 7,000